#1 Obama Announces Candidacy

Hello Everyone,

As you know from my previous emails, I am actively supporting Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy. He will officially announce this Saturday. The announcement will be made in the Old State Capital in Springfield, Illinois – where the Republican Abraham Lincoln made his famous speech proclaiming “a house divided against it’s self cannot stand.”

I have known Barack for four or five years, having met him at the Chicago Public Education Fund, an indication of his priorities. I know and work with his wife, Michelle, and know many of his close friends and advisors.

As I’ve said before, I am not normally active in politics. But, since I am more impressed by Barack than I have been by any candidate for any office since the 1960’s, I am committed to getting him nominated and elected.

Here’s why:

  • Barack is deliberative and reflective, not ideological.
  • He is highly intelligent and well-educated, so he will attract the best advisers, will listen to them, but not be manipulated by them.
  • He is not naturally partisan, so he approaches most issue with an open mind and has the capacity to see many points of view.
  • Due to the circumstances of his birth and childhood experiences, as a friend of mine put it, “Obama is an amalgam of all that is good about American”, or as I like to say, “He is a composite of all of us.”
  • Another friend has said that Barack is an “inspirational leader” at a time when we sorely need one.

I urge all of you to read his two books: Dreams from my Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2006) to take your own measure of the man.

Some will say that he is not experienced enough. Apropos of his choice of venue for this Sunday’s announcement, it’s instructive to be reminded that Lincoln’s total experience in elective office was less than Barack’s. Lincoln spent six years in Illinois’ General Assembly, while Barack spent seven years in the State Senate. Lincoln served two years in the US House of Representatives, while Barack will have spent nearly four years in the Senate by the time of the election. Lincoln was 51 when he won the presidency; Barack will be 47. John Kennedy was 43 when he was elected.

So, I would ask you to learn about his most admirable man and support him if you can. I will, from time to time, email you information I come across that you might not have seen, like the two recent Chicago Tribune articles which are attached. Penny and I have also joined Barack’s National Finance Committee. We urge you to support him. Donations of any size are welcome. They are limited to $2,300 per person per candidate for the primary. If so inclined, you can send a check(s) to me at the address below or go on line at www.barackobama.com.

And, finally, if you are already tired of hearing from me, or have already made up your mind please hit “reply” and tell me to get lost (before you call the Fed’s “do not call registry”.)

Many thanks,


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#2 First Quarter Results

Hello Everyone,

I just got off an Obama National Finance Committee conference call. There is
unprecedented enthusiasm for Barack’s candidacy as indicated by the results of just a few months of fundraising.

While the totals are not yet final, we now know we have raised at least $25 million from over 100,000 donors in just one quarter. At least $23.5 million of this amount has been raised for the primary campaign, with the rest being designated to the general campaign should Barack win the nomination. This is probably more than any other candidate (pay close attention to this distinction as the other campaigns report details of their first quarter results.)

Thank you to all who have contributed so far. It is greatly appreciated.

We still have a probable goal of $75 million (like it or not) for the primary, so there is lot’s of work to do.

If we haven’t talked, and you would like to consider contributing, please click “reply.” (If you’re tired of hearing from me, let me know that, too.)

Thank you,


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#3 Washington Meeting Notes

Hello Everyone,

Last week, I was in Washington for a meeting of Barack’s National Finance Committee. As you might suppose, it was quite up beat.

The amount of money raised during the first quarter – thanks to so many of you was a very convincing indication of the viability of Barack’s candidacy. As you know, he raised almost 30% more money for the primary than any other candidate. But all of us in attendance were even more heartened by the amazing breadth of support – over 104,000 contributors in just 2 ½ months – from a standing start. This was almost double the number of contributors for any other candidate some of whom have been building their organizations for much longer.

Now that his national name recognition is dramatically increasing (over 20,000 people turned up for a rally at Georgia Tech this weekend) and his financial credibility has been verified, Barack told us he will turn his attention to giving a series of policy speeches and working on position papers. Tomorrow, he will make a foreign policy address at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; I’ll be there. The first debate among the Democratic candidates will be next Thursday, April 26, in South Carolina. It will be televised on MSNBC from 6 to 7:30p CT. In this context, it was most encouraging to hear him say that, as he enters this more substantive phase of the campaign, he will “not dumb down”
his message. What a refreshing change in our political discourse that will be!

As further evidence of Barack’s intelligent and thoughtful approach, I am including below a recent article from the New York Times in case you missed it.

And here’s a potentially wonderful confluence of dates to fantasize about (especially if you’re from Chicago) – in 2016 – the Olympics are held in Chicago and someone is elected to succeed Chicago’s favorite son as he finishes his second term in the White House!

As always, click on “reply” with comments, questions, or suggestions – or to tell me if you’re tired of hearing from me.

April 8, 2007

2 Years After Big Speech, a Lower Key for Obama


COLO, Iowa, April 6 — Senator Barack Obama is not big on what he
calls red-meat applause lines when he campaigns in small communities
like this one, 45 miles northeast of Des Moines. He does not tell many
jokes. He talks in even, measured tones, and at times is so low-key that
he lulls his audiences into long, if respectful, silences.

Mr. Obama likes to recount the chapters of his unusual life: growing up
in Hawaii, living overseas, community organizing in Chicago, working in
the Illinois legislature, though not his years as a United States senator.
He talks — more often than not in broad, general strokes — about an
Obama White House that would provide health care to all, attack global
, improve education, fix Social Security and end the war in Iraq.
His campaign events end almost as an afterthought, surprising voters
used to the big finishes typically served up by the presidential
candidates seeking their support.

“Thank you very much, everybody. Have a nice day,” Mr. Obama said
pleasantly in Dakota City one afternoon, with a leisurely wave of a hand.
He headed over to a table where copies of his books, brought by
audience members, had been neatly laid out, awaiting the slash of his
left-handed autograph.

For most Democrats, Mr. Obama is the Illinois senator who riveted the
Democratic National Convention with a keynote speech that marked
him as one of the most powerful speakers his party had produced in 50
years. But as Mr. Obama methodically worked his way across swaths of
rural northern Iowa — his tall figure and skin color making him stand
out at diners and veterans’ homes, at high schools and community
colleges — it was clear that he is not presenting himself, stylistically at
least, the way he did two years ago when he gripped Democrats at the
Fleet Center in Boston.

He is cerebral and easy-going, often talking over any applause that
might rise up from his audience, and perhaps consciously trying to
present a political style that contrasts with the more charged presences
of John Edwards, the former trial lawyer and senator from North
Carolina, and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

He rarely mentions President Bush, as he disparages the partisan
quarrels of Washington, and is, at most, elliptically critical of Mr.
Edwards and Mrs. Clinton when he notes that he had opposed the war
in Iraq from the start; the two of them voted to authorize the war in

His audiences are rapt, if sometimes a tad restless; long periods can go
by when there is not a rustle in the crowd. Yet Iowa is not the Fleet
Center, and this appeal — “letting people see how I think,” as Mr.
Obama put it in an interview — could clearly go a long way in drawing
the support of Iowans who are turning out in huge numbers to see him
in the state where the presidential voting process will start.

“He’s low-key; he speaks like a professor,” said Jim Sayer, 51, a farmer
from Humboldt. “Maybe I expected more emotion. But the lower key
impresses me: He seems to be at the level that we are.”

Mary Margaret Gran, a middle-school teacher who met him when he
spoke to 25 Iowans eating breakfast at a tiny diner in Colo on Friday
morning, summed up her view the moment Mr. Obama had moved on
to the next table.

“Rock star?” Ms. Gran said, offering the description herself. “That’s the
national moniker. But dazzle is not what he is about at all. He’s

Mr. Obama, wearing sunglasses as he sat in the back of a car that was
taking him to a charter plane and then on to his home in Chicago for the
Easter weekend, nodded when told what Mr. Sayer and Ms. Gran had
said about him.

“I use a different style if I’m speaking to a big crowd; I can gin up folks
pretty well,” he said. “But when I’m in these town hall settings, my job is
not to throw them a lot of red meat. I want to give them a sense of my
thought process.”

Still, the emerging style of Mr. Obama as a candidate for president, at
least in a state like this with its emphasis on smaller settings, might
startle those who knew him only from the speech that made him famous
a speech that is included prominently in the video sometimes used to
introduce him.

Yes, there are strains of the populist call of Ross Perot. “Thousands of
people across the country feel we are in this moment of time where we
might be able to take our country back,” Mr. Obama said at the Algona
High School cafeteria, packed with young students and their parents.

His language about community and shared sacrifice can be evocative of
Mario M. Cuomo’s 1984 speech to the Democratic convention. “We have
responsibilities to ourselves, but we also have mutual responsibilities, so
if a child can’t read so well, that matters to us even if they are not our
child,” he said at V.F.W. Post 5240 in Dakota City. Heads nodded among
the people surrounding him in the theater-in-the-round layout that he

But there is also, in a historical comparison that his supporters have
tended to resist, the cool intellectualism of Adlai Stevenson who, for all
the loyalty he inspired among many Democrats in the 1950s — some of
whom still remember him fondly — lost two presidential elections. If
Mr. Obama enters the room to the sounds of “Think” by Aretha Franklin
and the roar of people coming to their feet, clapping and jostling for
photographs, it is only moments before the atmosphere turns from
campaign rally to college seminar, when he talks, for example, about the
need for a “common sense, nonideological, practical-minded, generous
agenda for change in this country.”

This evolution, or more precisely this attention to Mr. Obama’s
credentials as a campaigner in communities like this, comes in a week in
which he has, with the report that he had nearly matched Mrs. Clinton
by raising $25 million in the first quarter of presidential fund-raising,
left no doubt that he had the resources and, presumably the popular
support, to potentially deny her the nomination.

For Mr. Obama, his reception in Iowa has certainly changed since he
came here after announcing his presidential bid in February, trailing
enough reporters, press aides, advisers, family members and friends to
fill a Boeing 767. Then, he was nearly suffocated at every campaign
event with people craning for a look or a handshake or an autograph, or
television crews shouting out a question.

This week, mostly far from the bigger cities of Iowa, there was much less
press and staff, and the crowds, while still big, were manageable. Mr.
Obama has developed a system for handling all the people who brought
copies of his books to sign. “If you can put your name in the book and
hand it to my staff after we’re done, I’ll sign them all at once,” he said.

Things have cooled off enough to permit Mr. Obama, dressed in his
signature open-collared white shirt and loose-hanging black sports coat,
to linger until almost the last person is gone. This more casual setting
has revealed Mr. Obama to be a tactile campaigner; his bony hand
grabbing elbows and hands, his long arms thrown over shoulders,
drawing voters close in conversation.

And it allowed for moments like one that took place at the V.F.W. Hall
in Dakota City, after almost everyone had gone. Mr. Obama was
approached by a woman, her eyes wet. She spoke into his ear and began
to weep, collapsing into his embrace. They stood like that for a full
minute, Mr. Obama looking ashen, before she pulled away. She began
crying again, Mr. Obama pulled her in for another embrace.

The woman left declining to give her name or recount their
conversation. Mr. Obama said she told him what had happened to her
20-year-old son, who was serving in Iraq.

“Her son died,” he said. He paused. “What can you say? This happens to
me every single place I go.”

The next day, at the rally here, Mr. Obama described the encounter for
the crowd. The woman, he said, had asked if her son’s death was the
result of a mistake by the government. “And I told her the service of our
young men and women — the duty they show this country — that’s never
a mistake,” he said.

He paused carefully as he reflected on that encounter. “It reminds you
why you get into politics,” he said. “It reminds you that this isn’t a

Please pass it on,


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#4 Economic Advisor Goolsbee

Hello Everyone,

I promise to not inundate you with emails, but as I’ve done for the past several months, I try to keep my eye out for important news you may have missed and pass it along.

Yesterday, the business section of the NY Times had an article on the various candidates’ economic advisers. That article appears below.

As it reports, one of Barack’s principal advisers is University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee. As the highlighted section of the article indicates, and true to Chicago’s reputation, he is a true believer in free markets.

I am happy to count Austan as a friend. I am also proud to say that Austan has recently joined the University’s Charter School Governing Board, of which I am a member. The board oversees the three charter schools on Chicago’s Southside which we started and operate as part of our large Urban Education initiative. So, Austan is also working directly on one of our great social problems improving our urban schools. It is also worthwhile noting that Michelle Obama has served on UEI’s Policy Board. Good people doing good work.

As always, please pass this along,


April 18, 2007

The Advisers Are Writing Our Future


In the late 1990s, a small team of economists began traveling down to Austin, Tex., for occasional visits with Gov. George W. Bush, then an unannounced candidate for president. The economists were mostly old Republican policy hands. The youngest member of the group the only one who hadn’t worked for Ronald Reagan or Gerald Ford was Glenn Hubbard, a Columbia professor in his early 40s.

After Mr. Bush won, Mr. Hubbard went on to become the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and an architect of the tax cuts that love them or hate them — have undeniably been the centerpiece of Mr. Bush’s domestic policy. Mr. Hubbard was later responsible for bringing Ben Bernanke, then a professor at Princeton, into the Bush orbit.

All of which is to say that the early advisers to presidential candidates can leave a big imprint. For the 2008 campaign, the six leading campaigns have each signed up their first-string economic policy teams. These advisers don’t hold the sway that the political aides do, but they can ultimately have a bigger effect on the world. If the next president is going to reform health care, attack climate change or address middleclass anxiety, the solution is going to be shaped by these policy advisers. As Douglas Holtz-Eakin, John McCain’s director of economic policy, says, “If you’re specific about what you want to do and you win, you have a mandate.”

For now, the more interesting story is on the Democratic side. Among the Republicans, the three main candidates — Mr. McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney — all favor extending Mr. Bush’s tax cuts. That leaves the campaigns less room to propose other policies that cost money. It also makes it harder for the candidates to seem serious about the long-term budget deficit, a topic on which a number of the advisers, including Mr. Holtz-Eakin, the former head of the Congressional Budget Office, have been quite eloquent in the past.

The Democrats, besides talking about a broader range of subjects, also have the freshest face among the top campaign advisers Barack Obama’s lead economist, Austan Goolsbee, a 37-year-old star professor at the University of Chicago (who writes a monthly column for The New York Times). The two men met when Mr. Obama was teaching at the law school there, and they both seem to favor achieving Democratic goals through market-oriented policies. As Mr. Goolsbee has written: “Moral exhortation doesn’t change people’s behavior. Prices do.” Given their respective professions, the two are also more irreverent than you may expect: Mr. Goolsbee was once a member of an improvisational comedy group.

But the biggest reason he got the job may simply be that many Democratic economists were already loyal to Hillary Clinton. Her team is dominated by former aides from her husband’s administration like Roger Altman, an investment banker, and Gene Sperling, who worked his way up from serving as a campaign aide in 1992 to becoming a senior White House adviser. Dick Gephardt, the former House Democratic leader, is also working with Mrs. Clinton.

Both the Clinton and Obama campaigns are now playing catch-up on policy ideas. John Edwards, who’s running third in fund-raising and the early polls, has tried to grab attention by releasing a series of specific proposals. Rather than bringing economists into his campaign, he is relying on a network of former aides from Capitol Hill to help him sort through ideas. (One Edwards proposal on tax simplification was originally Mr. Goolsbee’s, in fact.)

To me, the most compelling question is how the Clinton and Obama campaigns will respond to Mr. Edwards’s health care plan. He wants to require companies that don’t cover their workers to pay into a fund. That fund, along with government subsidies, would cut the cost of insurance for families buying it on their own. He would then require all Americans to have health insurance.

It’s a serious plan, one that resembles the law signed in Massachusetts by Mr. Romney, the former governor there. But lack of insurance is only one of the two big problems with health care in this country, and it may well be the smaller problem. Even among the insured, there is an enormous amount of inefficiency today. Some patients get expensive treatments that bring little benefit, while millions of others miss out on basic care, like cholesterol-lowering drugs, that would make a huge difference to them.

Solving that problem will require changing the system so that it rewards good care not just any care. It will mean that Medicare and insurance companies must get tougher about saying no to $10,000 operations that haven’t been proven effective. Mr. Edwards’s white paper on health care includes some of these ideas, but he doesn’t emphasize them on the stump. And this is the sort of change that will require political leadership. Will Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama try to provide it?

For that matter, will one of the Republicans? At this point, they are focused on taxes, a make-or-break issue for many Republican primary voters. “We’re facing a gigantic tax increase,” said Michael Boskin, a top Giuliani adviser who, as an aide to George H. W. Bush, unsuccessfully tried to persuade his colleagues to take the 1990-91 recession more seriously.

It’s conceivable that Mr. Romney may go even further than extending the recent tax cuts and propose new ones. His top economic advisers are Mr. Hubbard; Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard professor and former aide to the current President Bush; and John F. Cogan, a Reagan budget official now at Stanford. They like tax cuts.

Mr. McCain, for his part, voted against both of the big Bush tax cuts. He said the first was too big and didn’t do enough to help the middle class, while the second was too expensive in a time of war. But because letting them expire would feel like a tax increase — and because Mr. McCain knows how his primary voters feel about tax increases — he supports them now.

Eventually, though, the Republican candidates will talk about issues besides taxes. To deal with the budget deficit, they will have to come up with ideas for spending cuts. Nothing is a bigger long-term expense than Medicare, which will bring the debate right back to health care.

The truth is that if you put the economic advisers, from both parties, in a room and told them to hammer out solutions to the country’s big economic problems, they would find a lot of common ground. They could agree that doctors and patients need better incentives to choose effective medical care. They would probably hit upon education policies along similar lines, requiring that schools be held more accountable for what their students are, and are not, learning. They might suggest a carbon tax a favorite idea of Mr. Mankiw — to deal with global warming. And they would shore up Social Security by reducing benefits
for high earners, as Mr. Hubbard has suggested.

Not all of these ideas are politically feasible at this point, but presidential campaigns can change what’s feasible. Here’s hoping that this year’s crop of economic advisers has the courage of their convictions.

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#5 Joseph Stiglitz

 Hello Everyone,

I wanted you to be among the first to know that Joseph Stiglitz has joined Barack’s group of economic advisers. Professor Stiglitz won the Nobel Prize Economics in 2001. Notably, he was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Clinton White House. Subsequently, he was Chief Economist at the World Bank. He is now on the faculty at Columbia University in New York. I’m proud to say that we were classmates at and are trustees of Amherst College.

We met with Barack’s policy staff in Washington on Monday. Joe will join Austin Goolsbee (University of Chicago) and former Clinton advisers, David Cutler and Jeffrey Liebman (both of Harvard.)

I am also including as an attachment and the full text of the foreign policy address the Senator gave at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on Monday in case you missed it. If you click on this link Senator Obama’s Remarks.

The Senator’s broad appeal continues – so far this month, over 37,000 people have contributed to his campaign – mostly on-line.

Don’t forget to tune in the first Democratic debate tonight on MSNBC at 6:00pm CT (7pm ET, 4pm PT.)

As always, please pass it along.


Remarks of Senator Barack Obama to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs – April 23, 2007

Good morning. We all know that these are not the best of times for America’s reputation in the world. We know what the war in Iraq has cost us in lives and treasure, in influence and respect. We have seen the consequences of a foreign policy based on a flawed ideology, and a belief that tough talk can replace real strength and vision.

Many around the world are disappointed with our actions. And many in our own country have come to doubt either our wisdom or our capacity to shape events beyond our borders. Some have even suggested that America’s time has passed.

But while we know what we have lost as a consequence of this tragic war, I also know what I have found in my travels over the past two years.

In an old building in Ukraine, I saw test tubes filled with anthrax and the plague lying virtually unlocked and unguarded – dangers we were told could only be secured with America’s help.

On a trip to the Middle East, I met Israelis and Palestinians who told me that peace remains a distant hope without the promise of American leadership. At a camp along the border of Chad and Darfur, refugees begged for America to step in and help stop the genocide that has taken their mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

And along the crowded streets of Kenya, I met throngs of children who asked if they’d ever get the chance to visit that magical place called America.

So I reject the notion that the American moment has passed. I dismiss the cynics who say that this new century cannot be another when, in the words of President Franklin Roosevelt, we lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.

I still believe that America is the last, best hope of Earth. We just have to show the world why this is so. This President may occupy the White House, but for the last six years the position of leader of the free the world has remained open. And it’s time to fill that role once more.

I believe that the single most important job of any President is to protect the American people. And I am equally convinced that doing that job effectively in the 21st century will require a new vision of American leadership and a new conception of our national security a vision that draws from the lessons of the past, but is not bound by outdated thinking.

In today’s globalized world, the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people. When narco-trafficking and corruption threaten democracy in Latin America, it’s America’s problem too. When poor villagers in Indonesia have no choice but to send chickens to market infected with avian flu, it cannot be seen as a distant concern. When religious schools in Pakistan teach hatred to young children, our children are threatened as well.

Whether it’s global terrorism or pandemic disease, dramatic climate change or the proliferation of weapons of mass annihilation, the threats we face at the dawn of the 21st century can no longer be contained by borders and boundaries.

The horrific attacks on that clear September day awakened us to this new reality. And after 9/11, millions around the world were ready to stand with us. They were willing to rally to our cause because it was their cause too because they knew that if America led the world toward a new era of global cooperation, it would advance the security of people in our nation and all nations.

We now know how badly this Administration squandered that opportunity. In 2002, I stated my opposition to the war in Iraq, not only because it was an unnecessary diversion from the struggle against the terrorists who attacked us on September 11th, but also because it was based on a fundamental sunderstanding of the threats that 9/11 brought to light. I believed then, and believe now, that it was based on old ideologies and outdated strategies a determination to
fight a 21st century struggle with a 20th century mindset.

There is no doubt that the mistakes of the past six years have made our current task more difficult. World opinion has turned against us. And after all the lives lost and the billions of dollars spent, many Americans may find it tempting to turn inward, and cede our claim of leadership in world affairs.

I insist, however, that such an abandonment of our leadership is a mistake we must not make. America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America. We must neither retreat from the world nor try to bully it into submission we must lead the world, by deed and example.

We must lead by building a 21st century military to ensure the security of our people and advance the security of all people. We must lead by marshalling a global effort to stop the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons. We must lead by building and strengthening the partnerships and alliances necessary to meet our common challenges and defeat our common threats.

And America must lead by reaching out to all those living disconnected lives of despair in the world’s forgotten corners because while there will always be those who succumb to hate and strap bombs to their bodies, there are millions more who want to take another path who want our beacon of hope to shine its light their way.

This election offers us the chance to turn the page and open a new chapter in American leadership. The disappointment that so many around the world feel toward America right now is only a testament to the high expectations they hold for us. We must meet those expectations again, not because being respected is an end in itself, but because the security of America and the wider world demands it.

This will require a new spirit – not of bluster and bombast, but of quiet confidence and sober intelligence, a spirit of care and renewed competence. It will also require a new leader. And as a candidate for President of the United States, I am asking you to entrust me with that responsibility.

There are five ways America will begin to lead again when I’m President. Five ways to let the world know that we are committed to our common security, invested in our common humanity, and still a beacon of freedom and justice for the world.

The first way America will lead is by bringing a responsible end to this war in Iraq and refocusing on the critical challenges in the broader region.

In a speech five months ago, I argued that there can be no military solution to what has become a political conflict between Sunni and Shi’a factions. And I laid out a plan that I still believe offers the best chance of pressuring these warring factions toward a political settlement – a phased withdrawal of American forces with the goal of removing all combat brigades from Iraq by March 31st, 2008.

I acknowledged at the time that there are risks involved in such an approach. That is why my plan provides for an over-the-horizon force that could prevent chaos in the wider region, and allows for a limited number of troops to remain in Iraq to fight al Qaeda and other terrorists.

But my plan also makes clear that continued U.S. commitment to Iraq depends on the Iraqi government meeting a series of well-defined benchmarks necessary to reach a political settlement. Thus far, the Iraqi government has made very little progress in meeting any of the benchmarks, in part because the President has refused time and again to tell the Iraqi government that we will not be there forever. The President’s escalation of U.S. forces may bring a temporary reduction in the violence in Baghdad, at the price of increased U.S. casualties though the experience so far is not encouraging. But it cannot change the political dynamic in Iraq. A phased withdrawal can.

Moreover, until we change our approach in Iraq, it will be increasingly difficult to refocus our efforts on the challenges in the wider region – on the conflict in the Middle East, where Hamas and Hezbollah feel emboldened and Israel’s prospects for a secure peace seem uncertain; on Iran, which has been strengthened by the war in Iraq; and on Afghanistan, where more American forces are needed to battle al Qaeda, track down Osama bin Laden, and stop that country from backsliding toward instability.

Burdened by Iraq, our lackluster diplomatic efforts leave a huge void. Our interests are best served when people and governments from Jerusalem and Amman to Damascus and Tehran understand that America will stand with our friends, work hard to build a peaceful Middle East, and refuse to cede the future of the region to those who seek perpetual conflict and instability. Such effective diplomacy cannot be done on the cheap, nor can it be warped by an ongoing occupation of Iraq. Instead, it will require patient, sustained effort, and the personal commitment of the President of the United States. That is a commitment I intend to make.

The second way America will lead again is by building the first truly 21st century military and showing wisdom in how we deploy it.

We must maintain the strongest, best-equipped military in the world in order to defeat and deter conventional threats. But while sustaining our technological edge will always be central to our national security, the ability to put boots on the ground will be critical in eliminating the shadowy terrorist networks we now face. This is why our country’s greatest military asset is the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States.

This administration’s first Secretary of Defense proudly acknowledged that he had inherited the greatest fighting force in the nation’s history. Six years later, he handed over a force that has been stretched to the breaking point, understaffed, and struggling to repair its equipment.

Two-thirds of the Army is now rated “not ready” for combat. 88% of the National Guard is not ready to deploy overseas, and many units cannot respond to a domestic emergency.

Our men and women in uniform are performing heroically around the world in some of the most difficult conditions imaginable. But the war in Afghanistan and the ill-advised invasion of Iraq have clearly demonstrated the consequences of underestimating the number of troops required to fight two wars and defend our homeland. That’s why I strongly support the expansion of our ground forces by adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 Marines.

But adding troops isn’t just about meeting a quota. It’s about recruiting the best and brightest to service, and it’s about keeping them in service by providing them with the first-rate equipment, armor, training, and incentives they deserve. It’s about providing funding to enable the National Guard to achieve an adequate state of readiness again. And it’s about honoring our veterans by giving them the respect and dignity they deserve and the care and benefits they have earned.

A 21st century military will also require us to invest in our men and women’s ability to succeed in today’s complicated conflicts. We know that on the streets of Baghdad, a little bit of Arabic can actually provide security to our soldiers. Yet, just a year ago, less than 1% of the American military could speak a language such as Arabic, Mandarin, Hindi, Urdu, or Korean. It’s time we
recognize these as critical skills for our military, and it’s time we recruit and train for them.

Former Secretary Rumsfeld said, “You go to war with the Army you have, not the one you want.” I say that if the need arises when I’m President, the Army we have will be the Army we need.

Of course, how we use our armed forces matters just as much as how they are prepared. No President should ever hesitate to use force – unilaterally if necessary – to protect ourselves and our vital interests when we are attacked or imminently threatened. But when we use force in situations other than self-defense, we should make every effort to garner the clear support and participation of others – the kind of burden-sharing and support President George H.W. Bush mustered before he launched Operation Desert Storm.

And when we do send our men and women into harm’s way, we must also clearly define the mission, prescribe concrete political and military objectives, seek out advice of our military commanders, evaluate the intelligence, plan accordingly, and ensure that our troops have the resources, support, and equipment they need to protect themselves and fulfill their mission.

We must take these steps with the knowledge that while sometimes necessary, force is the costliest weapon in the arsenal of American power in terms of lives and treasure. And it’s far from the only measure of our strength.

In order to advance our national security and our common security, we must call on the full arsenal of American power and ingenuity. To constrain rogue nations, we must use effective diplomacy and muscular alliances. To penetrate terrorist networks, we need a nimble intelligence community – with strong leadership that forces agencies to share information, and invests in the tools, technologies and human intelligence that can get the job done. To maintain our influence in the world economy, we need to get our fiscal house in order. And to weaken the hand of hostile dictators, we must free ourselves from our oil addiction. None of these expressions of power can supplant the need for a strong military. Instead, they complement our military, and help ensure that the use of force is not our sole available option.

The third way America must lead again is by marshalling a global effort to meet a threat that rises above all others in urgency – securing, destroying, and stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

As leaders from Henry Kissinger to George Shultz to Bill Perry to Sam Nunn have all warned, the actions we are taking today on this issue are simply not adequate to the danger.

There are still about 50 tons of highly enriched uranium – some of it poorly secured – at civilian nuclear facilities in over forty countries around the world. In the former Soviet Union, there are still about 15,000 to 16,000 nuclear weapons and stockpiles of uranium and plutonium capable of making another 40,000 weapons scattered across 11 time zones. And people have already been caught trying to smuggle nuclear materials to sell them on the black market.

We can do something about this. As President, I will lead a global effort to secure all nuclear weapons and material at vulnerable sites within four years – the most effective way to prevent terrorists from acquiring a bomb.

We know that Russia is neither our enemy nor close ally right now, and we shouldn’t shy away from pushing for more democracy, transparency, and accountability in that country. But we also know that we can and must work with Russia to make sure every one of its nuclear weapons and every cache of nuclear material is secured. And we should fully implement the law I passed with Senator Dick Lugar that would help the United States and our allies detect and stop the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction throughout the world.

While we work to secure existing stockpiles of nuclear material, we should also negotiate a verifiable global ban on the production of new nuclear weapons material.

As starting points, the world must prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and work to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. If America does not lead, these two nations could trigger regional arms races that could accelerate nuclear proliferation on a global scale and create dangerous nuclear lashpoints. In pursuit of this goal, we must never take the military option off the table. But our first line of offense here must be sustained, direct and aggressive diplomacy. For North Korea, that means ensuring the full implementation of the recent agreement. For Iran, it means getting the UN Security Council, Europe, and the Gulf States to join with us in ratcheting up the economic pressure.

We must also dissuade other countries from joining the nuclear club. Just the other day, it was reported that nearly a dozen countries in and around the Middle East –including Syria and Saudi Arabia – are interested in pursuing nuclear power.

Countries should not be able to build a weapons program under the auspices of developing peaceful nuclear power. That’s why we should create an international fuel bank to back up commercial fuel supplies so there’s an assured supply and no more excuses for nations like Iran to build their own enrichment plants. It’s encouraging that the Nuclear Threat Initiative, backed by Warren Buffett, has already offered funding for this fuel bank, if matched two to one. But on an issue of this importance, the United States should not leave the solution to private philanthropies. It should be a central component of our national security, and that’s why we should provide $50 million to get this fuel bank started and urge other nations, starting with Russia, to join us.

Finally, if we want the world to deemphasize the role of nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia must lead by example. President Bush once said, “The United States should remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status – another unnecessary vestige of Cold War confrontation.” Six years later, President Bush has not acted on this promise. I will. We cannot and should not accept the threat of accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch. We can maintain a strong nuclear deterrent to protect our security without rushing to produce a new generation of warheads.

The danger of nuclear proliferation reminds us of how critical global cooperation will be in the 21st century. That’s why the fourth way America must lead is to rebuild and construct the alliances and partnerships necessary to meet common challenges and confront common threats.

In the wake of the Second World War, it was America that largely built a system of international institutions that carried us through the Cold War. Leaders like Harry Truman and George Marshall knew that instead of constraining our power, these institutions magnified it.

Today it’s become fashionable to disparage the United Nations, the World Bank, and other international organizations. In fact, reform of these bodies is urgently needed if they are to keep pace with the fast-moving threats we face. Such real reform will not come, however, by dismissing the value of these institutions, or by bullying other countries to ratify changes we have drafted in isolation. Real reform will come because we convince others that they too have a stake in change – that such reforms will make their world, and not just ours, more secure.

Our alliances also require constant management and revision if they are to remain effective and relevant. For example, over the last 15 years, NATO has made tremendous strides in transforming from a Cold War security structure to a dynamic partnership for peace.

Today, NATO’s challenge in Afghanistan has become a test case, in the words of Dick Lugar, of whether the alliance can “overcome the growing discrepancy between NATO’s expanding missions and its lagging capabilities.”

We must close this gap, rallying members to contribute troops to collective security operations, urging them to invest more in reconstruction and stabilization, streamlining decision-making processes, and giving commanders in the field more flexibility.

And as we strengthen NATO, we should also seek to build new alliances and relationships in other regions important to our interests in the 21st century. In Asia, the emergence of an economically vibrant, more politically active China offers new opportunities for prosperity and cooperation, but also poses new challenges for the United States and our partners in the region. It is time for the United States to take a more active role here – to build on our strong bilateral relations and informal arrangements like the Six Party talks. As President, I intend to forge a more effective regional framework in Asia that will promote stability, prosperity and help us confront common transnational threats such as tracking down terrorists and responding to global
health problems like avian flu.

In this way, the security alliances and relationships we build in the 21st century will serve a broader purpose than preventing the invasion of one country by another. They can help us meet challenges that the world can only confront together, like the unprecedented threat of global climate change.

This is a crisis that cannot be contained to one corner of the globe. Studies show that with each degree of warming, rice yields – the world’s most significant crop – fall by 10%. By 2050 famine could displace more than 250 million people worldwide. That means people competing for food and water in the next fifty years in the very places that have known horrific violence in the last fifty: Africa, the Middle East, South Asia.

As the world’s largest producers of greenhouse gases, America has the greatest responsibility to lead here. We must enact a cap and trade system that will dramatically reduce our carbon emissions. And we must finally free ourselves from our dependence on foreign oil by raising our fuel standards and harnessing the power of biofuels.

Such steps are not just environmental priorities, they are critical to our security. America must take decisive action in order to more plausibly demand the same effort from others. We should push for binding and enforceable commitments to reduce emissions by the nations which pollute the most – the United States, the European Union, Russia, China, and India together account for nearly two-thirds of current emissions. And we should help ensure that growth in developing countries is fueled by low-carbon energy – the market for which could grow to $500 billion by 2050 and spur the next wave of American entrepreneurship.

The fifth way America will lead again is to invest in our common humanity – to ensure that those who live in fear and want today can live with dignity and opportunity tomorrow.

A recent report detailed Al Qaeda’s progress in recruiting a new generation of leaders to replace the ones we have captured or killed. The new recruits come from a broader range of countries than the old leadership – from Afghanistan to Chechnya, from Britain to Germany, from Algeria to Pakistan. Most of these recruits are in their early thirties.

They operate freely in the disaffected communities and disconnected corners of our interconnected world – the impoverished, weak and ungoverned states that have become the most fertile breeding grounds for transnational threats like terror and pandemic disease and the smuggling of deadly weapons.

Some of these terrorist recruits may have always been destined to take the path they did accepting a tragically warped view of their religion in which God rewards the killing of innocents. But millions of young men and women have not.

Last summer I visited the Horn of Africa’s Combined Joint Task Force, which was
headquartered at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti. It’s a U.S. base that was set up four years ago, originally as a place to launch counter-terrorism operations. But recently, a major focus of the Task Force has been working with our diplomats and aid workers on operations to win hearts and minds. While I was there, I also took a helicopter ride with Admiral Hunt, the commander of the Task Force, to Dire Dawa, where the U.S. was helping provide food and water to Ethiopians who had been devastated by flooding.

One of the Navy captains who helps run the base recently told a reporter, “Our mission is at least 95 percent civil affairs. It’s trying to get at the root causes of why people want to take on the U.S.” The Admiral now in charge of the Task Force suggested that if they can provide dignity and opportunity to the people in that region, then, “the chance of extremism being welcomed greatly, if not completely, diminishes.”

We have heard much over the last six years about how America’s larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom – that it is the yearning of all who live in the shadow of tyranny and despair.

I agree. But this yearning is not satisfied by simply deposing a dictator and setting up a ballot box. The true desire of all mankind is not only to live free lives, but lives marked by dignity and opportunity; by security and simple justice.

Delivering on these universal aspirations requires basic sustenance like food and clean water; medicine and shelter. It also requires a society that is supported by the pillars of a sustainable democracy – a strong legislature, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, a vibrant civil society, a free press, and an honest police force. It requires building the capacity of the world’s weakest states and providing them what they need to reduce poverty, build healthy and educated communities, develop markets, and generate wealth. And it requires states that have the capacity to fight terrorism, halt the proliferation of deadly weapons, and build the health care infrastructure needed to prevent and treat such deadly diseases as HIV/AIDS and malaria.

As President, I will double our annual investments in meeting these challenges to $50 billion by 2012 and ensure that those new resources are directed towards these strategic goals.

For the last twenty years, U.S. foreign aid funding has done little more than keep pace with inflation. Doubling our foreign assistance spending by 2012 will help meet the challenge laid out by Tony Blair at the 2005 G-8 conference at Gleneagles, and it will help push the rest of the developed world to invest in security and opportunity. As we have seen recently with large increases in funding for our AIDS programs, we have the capacity to make sure this funding makes a real difference.

Part of this new funding will also establish a two billion dollar Global Education Fund that calls on the world to join together in eliminating the global education deficit, similar to what the 9/11 commission proposed. Because we cannot hope to shape a world where opportunity outweighs danger unless we ensure that every child, everywhere, is taught to build and not to destroy.

I know that many Americans are skeptical about the value of foreign aid today. But as the U.S. military made clear in Camp Lemonier, a relatively small investment in these fragile states up front can be one of the most effective ways to prevent the terror and strife that is far more costly both in lives and treasure – down the road. In this way, $50 billion a year in foreign aid which is less than one-half of one percent of our GDP – doesn’t sound as costly when you consider that last year, the Pentagon spent nearly double that amount in Iraq alone.

Finally, while America can help others build more secure societies, we must never forget that only the citizens of these nations can sustain them. The corruption I heard about while visiting parts of Africa has been around for decades, but the hunger to eliminate such corruption is a growing and powerful force among people there. And so in these places where fear and want still thrive, we must couple our aid with an insistent call for reform.

We must do so not in the spirit of a patron, but the spirit of a partner a partner that is mindful of its own imperfections. Extending an outstretched hand to these states must ultimately be more than just a matter of expedience or even charity. It must be about recognizing the inherent equality and worth of all people. And it’s about showing the world that America stands for something that we can still lead.

These are the ways we will answer the challenge that arrived on our shores that September morning more than five years ago. A 21st century military to stay on the offense, from Djibouti to Kandahar. Global efforts to keep the world’s deadliest weapons out of the world’s most dangerous hands. Stronger alliances to share information, pool resources, and break up terrorist networks that operate in more than eighty countries. And a stronger push to defeat the terrorists’ message of hate with an agenda for hope around the world.

It’s time we had a President who can do this again – who can speak directly to the world, and send a message to all those men and women beyond our shores who long for lives of dignity and security that says “You matter to us. Your future is our future. And our moment is now.” It’s time, as well, for a President who can build a consensus at home for this ambitious but necessary course. For in the end, no foreign policy can succeed unless the American people understand it and feel a stake in its success – and unless they trust that their government hears their more immediate concerns as well. After all, we will not be able to increase foreign aid if we fail to invest in security and opportunity for our own people. We cannot negotiate trade agreements to help spur development in poor countries so long as we provide no meaningful help to working Americans burdened by the dislocations of a global economy. We cannot expect Americans to support placing our men and women in harm’s way if we cannot prove that we will use force wisely and judiciously.

But if the next President can restore the American people’s trust – if they know that he or she is acting with their best interests at heart, with prudence and wisdom and some measure of humility then I believe the American people will be ready to see America lead again.

They will be ready to show the world that we are not a country that ships prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far off countries. That we are not a country that runs prisons which lock people away without ever telling them why they are there or what they are charged with. That we are not a country which preaches compassion and justice to others while we allow bodies to float down the streets of a major American city.

That is not who we are.

America is the country that helped liberate a continent from the march of a madman. We are the country that told the brave people of a divided city that we were Berliners too. We sent generations of young people to serve as ambassadors for peace in countries all over the world. And we’re the country that rushed aid throughout Asia for the victims of a devastating tsunami.

Now it’s our moment to lead – our generation’s time to tell another great American story. So someday we can tell our children that this was the time when we helped forge peace in the Middle East. That this was the time when we confronted climate change and secured the weapons that could destroy the human race. This was the time when we brought opportunity to those forgotten corners of the world. And this was the time when we renewed the America that has led generations of weary travelers from all over the world to find opportunity, and liberty, and hope on our doorstep.

One of these travelers was my father. I barely knew him, but when, after his death, I finally took my first trip to his tiny village in Kenya and asked my grandmother if there was anything left from him, she opened a trunk and took out a stack of letters, which she handed to me.

There were more than thirty of them, all handwritten by my father, all addressed to colleges and universities across America, all filled with the hope of a young man who dreamed of more for his life.

It is because someone in this country answered that prayer that I stand before you today with faith in our future, confidence in our story, and a determination to do my part in writing our country’s next great chapter. The American moment has not passed. The American moment is here. And like generations before us, we will seize that moment, and begin the world anew.

Thank you.

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#6 Insights into Obama

Hello Everyone,

I’m including as attachments (as well as the full texts below) two pieces that provide some important and, in my personal experience, accurate insights into Barack Obama and how he thinks.

The first is a piece by the conservative NY Times columnist, David Brooks, based on his recent interview with Barack (Brooks has some connection to us in Chicago since he did his under-graduate work at the University of Chicago.)

The second, much longer article, is from the current New Yorker. There are many good insights in this one, starting with the three paragraphs I’ve highlighted on page two.

Combined, these articles give us some perspectives on the depth and range of Barack’s intellect and his deliberative temperament. You can see why eight-person, sound-bite debates are not his best forum. As his wife, Michelle, is reported to have said, “it takes
sixty seconds for him to clear his throat.”

As always, please pass it along.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: Obama, Gospel and Verse.


adobe pdf file Attachment: The Conciliator.

#7 Perspectives on Money and the Polls

Hello Everyone,

In the wake of Barack’s astonishing fundraising results for the second quarter, I thought I would try to put them in a larger context. And I want to provide you with some historical perspective on the national polls – which are out of synch with these results. As we all know, neither of these indicators is predictive of the final outcome.


First, I want to thank those of you who have helped make this all possible. Your dollars and participation have greatly enhanced Barack’s prospects in the primaries and caucuses. Here are the first six months’ results, with the 2Q07 numbers being the minimum amounts reported so far by the campaigns. I have rounded down the amounts to simplify the tables. Unlike the media, however, I have included only the dollars available for the primary election. (Edwards 2Q07 number may be high.) The whole fundraising game changes after one candidate secures the nomination. In fact, if a candidate doesn’t win the primary, he/she must return “general election” contributions to donors.

Primary Dollars Only (mm)
1Q07 2Q07 Total
Obama $24 $31 $55
Clinton $20 $21 $41
Edwards $13 $9 $22

Obama’s totals set a new record for non-incumbent candidates in the “off year” – that is, the one prior to the year of the general election. And, only one incumbent has ever topped them.

The number of contributors to Barack’s campaign in the first six months – 258,000 – far out-strips all previous records. This total is more than double his closest competitor’s.

The breadth of this support naturally evokes comparisons to an earlier “grass-roots, internet” phenomenon – Howard Dean – who met an abrupt and ignominious end. Aside from the stark differences in temperament, the actual numerical differences are also striking. During Dean’s first six months, he raised a total of $10 million from about 70,000 donors – a far cry from Barack’s more than $57 million from 258,000 donors.

The polls

The following historical observations about national polls going back to 1979 are adapted from a recent memo from the Obama campaign. As we sit here 16 months ahead of the November 2008 general election, it is worthwhile remembering how ineffective past polls have been in predicting electoral outcomes and how mercurial they can be.

In August 2003, 15 months ahead of the general election – Joe Lieberman led the national polls. In September, Howard Dean led. In October, Wesley Clark led. And in December – 1 month before the Iowa Caucuses – a poll showed John Kerry, the eventual nominee, in 5th place trailing Lieberman and Dick Gephardt, among others.

In August 1979 – 15 months before the general – a poll showed the incumbent and eventual nominee President Carter trailing Senator Ted Kennedy by 36 points.

In November 1991 – 12 months before the general – a poll had Bill Clinton in 3rd place with less than half the support of the then-frontrunner, Jerry Brown. In January 1988 – 10 months before the general – a poll showed Michael Dukakis, the eventual nominee, in 4th place with a 6% showing.

So, I hope this provides some perspective. As we all know, success in fundraising and in early polls are not predictive of success in actually winning delegates. Money is simply a “necessary but not sufficient condition” of politics. And, for that we are grateful.

Pass it on.


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#8 Good Judgment on Foreign Policy

Hello Everyone,

This is another message from me in an occasional series….

Barack’s positions on Pakistan, despots, and nuclear weapons have made headlines recently, leading some to question his experience in – and therefore judgment on – foreign affairs. For what it’s worth, I want to tell you why I have great confidence in Barack’s judgment in this area.


Let’s start from the beginning – on the most important issue we now face – the Iraq War.

Long before he announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate – when he was a State Senator in Illinois and supposedly inexperienced in foreign affairs – Barack declared his opposition to invading Iraq. In a speech delivered in Chicago on October 26, 2002 –nearly six months before we invaded – he declared, “I don’t oppose all wars… I’m opposed to … a dumb war.” This is a speech he conceived and wrote himself – long before he had a fleet of advisors and speechwriters. It is a true measure of this man’s judgment – and eloquence. I urge you to read this speech – it’s attached, and it’s only two pages. (The full text also appears below.)

On November 15, 2002, Barack was interviewed on TV about that speech (it is posted on YouTube.com: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhpKmQCCwB8). In it, with uncanny sophistication and prescience, he asks, “…What’s our long term commitment there? How much is it going to cost? What does it mean for us to rebuild Iraq? How do we stabilize and make sure that this country doesn’t splinter into factions between the Shiites and the Kurds and the Sunnis?

As Barack has more recently pointed out, we tend to expect that experience will enhance judgment, since it is judgment we ultimately seek. But, as we have seen with an administration dominated by Vice President Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld – who both served in the Nixon Administration over 30 years ago – experience is not always a proxy for good judgment. And, as Barack has demonstrated with his early and nuanced warnings about Iraq, good judgment does not always require years of Washington experience.


I don’t understand why it is presumed that the two other leading Democratic contenders have more experience than Barack does. Here are the facts – in terms of years served in elective office by January 2009:

4 years U.S. Senate
8 years IL Senate
12 years in elective office

8 years U.S. Senate

6 years U.S. Senate

Incidentally, another prominent political leader from Illinois had served in elective office for a relatively short time prior to his election as president and was defeated in his only bid for a U.S. Senate seat.

8 years IL General Assembly (the lower house)
2 years U.S. House of Representatives
10 years in elective office


It is important to note that Barack’s principal advisers on foreign affairs are highly experienced:

Tony Lake – National Security Adviser to President Clinton. Also worked in the State Department and in National Security positions for Presidents Nixon and Kennedy.

Susan Rice – Member of President Clinton’s National Security Council and an Assistant Secretary of State.

Nonetheless, as he has demonstrated since 2002, Barack will not simply embrace traditional Washington approaches to foreign policy. He will be his own man and will try to do what makes sense.

Observers and Competitors

The Senator’s judgment on foreign affairs has recently elicited the following praise from some respected observers:

Ted Sorenson – John Kennedy’s long-time Senate and White House adviser. Obama “…represents the future of the Democratic Party… (because he does not use) the same old Cold War rhetoric….”

Zbigniew Brzezinski – President Carter’s National Security Adviser. “…There is a need for a fundamental rethinking of how we conduct world affairs …Obama seems to me to have both the guts and the intelligence to address that issue and to change the nature of American’s relationship with the world. He has a sense of what is historically relevant and what is needed from the United States in relationship to the world.”

Lee Hamilton – Co-Chair of the Iraq Study Group. “Senator Obama presented a thoughtful, substantive and comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy.”

Specifically with respect to dealing with despots, Senator Clinton said the following on April 22, 2007 in Decorah, Iowa, “I think it is a terrible mistake for our president to say he will not talk with bad people. You don’t make peace with your friends – you have to do the hard work of dealing with people you don’t agree with.” Naïve?


Lastly, remember when Barack said he would pursue terrorists in Pakistan, with or without the permission of its military dictator? And, remember how the establishment lambasted him for that? Well, as reported by the Associated Press on August 24, 2007, the U.S. military has had the authority to do just that for more than three years under its “rules of engagement.”

So, I hope you see why I think Barack’s judgment on foreign affairs has been very good. And even though his experience in holding elective office is actually more extensive than his two leading competitors, it is his good judgment that I most value.

Please “pass it on.”


Barack Obama’s Iraq Speech

Delivered on 26 October 2002 in Chicago at Federal Plaza at an anti Iraq war rally organized by the ANSWER coalition.

Good afternoon. Let me begin by saying that although this has been billed as an anti-war rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances. The Civil War was one of the bloodiest in history, and yet it was only through the crucible of the sword, the sacrifice of multitudes, that we could begin to perfect this union, and drive the scourge of slavery from our soil.

I don’t oppose all wars.

My grandfather signed up for a war the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, fought in Patton’s army. He saw the dead and dying across the fields of Europe; he heard the stories of fellow troops who first entered Auschwitz and Treblinka. He fought in the name of a larger freedom, part of that arsenal of democracy that triumphed over evil, and he did not fight in vain.

I don’t oppose all wars.

After September 11th, after witnessing the carnage and destruction, the dust and the tears, I supported this Administration’s pledge to hunt down and root out those who would slaughter innocents in the name of intolerance, and I would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

I don’t oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other arm-chair, weekend warriors in this Administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income – to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.

That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.

Now let me be clear – I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity.

He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.

I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.

So for those of us who seek a more just and secure world for our children, let us send a clear message to the president today. You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s finish the fight with Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, through effective, coordinated intelligence, and a shutting down of the financial networks that support terrorism, and a homeland security program that involves more than color-coded warnings.

You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure that the UN inspectors can do their work, and that we vigorously enforce a non-proliferation treaty, and that former enemies and current allies like Russia safeguard and ultimately eliminate their stores of nuclear material, and that nations like Pakistan and India never use the terrible weapons already in their possession, and that the arms merchants in our own country stop feeding the countless wars that rage across the globe.

You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells. You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to wean ourselves off Middle East oil, through an energy policy that doesn’t simply serve the interests of Exxon and Mobil.

Those are the battles that we need to fight. Those are the battles that we willingly join. The battles against ignorance and intolerance. Corruption and greed. Poverty and despair.

The consequences of war are dire, the sacrifices immeasurable. We may have occasion in our lifetime to once again rise up in defense of our freedom, and pay the wages of war. But we ought not – we will not – travel down that hellish path blindly. Nor should we allow those who would march off and pay the ultimate sacrifice, who would prove the full measure of devotion with their blood, to make such an awful sacrifice in vain.

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adobe pdf file Attachment: Barack Obama’s Iraq Speech

#9 National Polls are Irrelevant

Hello Everyone,

First of all, please tune in this Sunday morning (November 11) to see Barack on Meet the Press. On NBC. At 9:30am Central Time; please check your local listings.

Yesterday, I attended Obama National and Illinois Finance Committee meetings at campaign headquarters. Michelle Obama, among others, met with our group.

The conventional wisdom is that the game is over. Because that’s what the national polls say. I think that’s dead wrong. I’m feeling really good about where our campaign stands right now. And let me tell you why.

National polls are principally a reflection of name recognition at this point in the cycle. (It is obvious, who has the advantage there.) But the actual nominating process is a sequential process, with a focus on the early states. Iowa comes first — on January 3. The Iowa polls say it’s a dead heat between Barack and Hillary.

And speaking of national polls, a week before the last Iowa caucuses in 2004, John Kerry stood at 8% in the national polls. The “experts” expected him to drop out of the race (see attachment). And a few days later, he won Iowa… and then New Hampshire… and then the nomination.

Remember, because of folks like us, the Obama campaign has raised more money for the primaries than any other campaign, despite Hillary’s name recognition and slightly better showing in the last quarter. So we will have great staying power.

Nonetheless, you will still need more.

The cost of campaigning in the nearly 2 dozen states with February 5th primaries and caucuses will be enormous. So, please think about whether you can give… or give more. I will be calling many of you, but also would appreciate those who volunteer more support. And, thank you for all of your support so far.

Surprisingly, there are just 45 days to go before the holidays, when things will quiet down until the January 3rd Iowa caucuses.

I will send along some additional observations in the next few days.

As always, please pass it along.


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#10 Two Worthwhile Articles

Hello Everyone,

This is another in my occasional series on the Obama Campaign.

Here are excerpts from two recent New York Times Magazine and Atlantic Monthly articles that capture the essence of Barack Obama as well as any I have seen. They offer insights into why Barack is the only presidential candidate I have worked for over the last 40 years.

Each article talks about the dramatically different “face” Barack brings to America’s political leadership.

(The complete articles are attached – I strongly urge you to read them. I’ve also included the attachment from the “National Journal” which I failed to include in my last Obamagram. It shows how John Kerry was being completely written off just before the 2004 Iowa caucuses – which he then won.)

James Traub wrote in the New York Times Magazine on November 4:

“If I am the face of American foreign policy and American power,” Barack Obama mused not long ago, “(and people in other countries see that) we have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian, then they’re going to think that I may have a better sense of what’s going on in (their) lives and in (their) country. And they’d be right.”

The great project of the foreign-policy world in the last few years has been to think through a “post-post-9/11 strategy,” in the words of the Princeton Project on National Security, a study that brought together many of the foreign-policy thinkers of both parties. Such a strategy, the experts concluded, must, like “a Swiss Army knife,” offer different tools for different situations…must pay close attention to “how others may perceive us differently than we perceive ourselves, no matter how good our intentions;” must recognize that other nations may legitimately care more about their neighbors or their access to resources than about terrorism; and must be “grounded in hope, not fear.” A post-post-9/11 strategy must harness the forces of globalization while honestly addressing the growing “perception of unfairness” around the world; must actively promote, not just democracy, but “a world of liberty under law”…In mainstream foreignpolicy circles, Barack Obama is seen as the true bearer of this vision. “There are maybe 200 people on the Democratic side who think about foreign policy for a living,” as one such figure, himself unaffiliated with a campaign, estimates. “The vast majority have thrown in their lot with Obama.”

Andrew Sullivan writes in the current Atlantic Monthly:

…the fundamental point of (Obama’s) candidacy is that it is happening now. In politics, timing matters. And the most persuasive case for Obama has less to do with him than with the moment he is meeting. The moment has been a long time coming, and it is the result of a confluence of events, from one traumatizing war in Southeast Asia to another in the most fractious country in the Middle East. The legacy is a cultural climate that stultifies our politics and corrupts our discourse. Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us.

A generational divide…separates Clinton and Obama with respect to domestic politics. Clinton grew up saturated in the conflict that still defines American politics.

Obama did not politically come of age during the Vietnam era, and he is simply less afraid of the right wing than Clinton is…

A Giuliani-Clinton matchup, favored by the media elite, is a classic intragenerational struggle—with two deeply divisive and ruthless personalities ready to go to the brink.

Of the viable national candidates, only Obama and possibly McCain have the potential to bridge the widening partisan gulf.

It isn’t about (Obama’s) policies as such; it is about his person.

What does he offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan.

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but alogarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

The other obvious advantage that Obama has in facing the world and our enemies is his record on the Iraq War.

It is worth recalling the key passages of the speech Obama gave in Chicago on October 2, 2002, five months before the war: “I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war…I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.”

The man who opposed the war for the right reasons is for that reason the potential president with the most flexibility in dealing with it. Clinton is hemmed in by her past and her generation.

If you believe that America’s current crisis is not a deep one…Clinton will do. But if you sense, as I do, that greater danger lies ahead, and that our divisions and recent history have combined to make the American polity and constitutional order increasingly vulnerable, then the calculus of risk changes. At a time when America’s estrangement from the world risks tipping into dangerous imbalance, when a country at war with lethal enemies is also increasingly at war with itself, when humankind’s spiritual yearnings veer between an excess of certainty and an inability to believe anything at all, and when sectarian and racial divides seem as intractable as ever, a man who is a bridge between these worlds may be indispensable.

We may in fact have finally found that bridge to the 21st century that Bill Clinton told us about. Its name is Obama.

“Please pass it on.”


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adobe pdf file Attachment: Is (His) Biography (Our) Destiny?


adobe pdf file Attachment: Goodbye to All That


adobe pdf file Attachment: Insiders See Kerry, Lieberman Exiting Next

#11 Report from Iowa

Congratulations Everybody!

Penny and I are driving home from a productive and memorable three days in Grinnell, IA, the small town home of Penny’s alma mater Grinnell College (she’s a trustee, too.) We canvassed, telephoned, and visited many folks associated with the College as well as a whole lot of strangers.

Barack had the only visible field operation in Grinnell. We never saw evidence of an office for Edwards or Hillary. Our low-rent, unfurnished storefront was purring with activity, led by an impressive 24-year old, Matt LaRocque, whose parents appropriately are Grinnell alumni. Matt was tireless, poised and mature beyond his years, and we willingly took direction from him.

During the hour before the caucuses began last night, we mingled with about 150 Grinnell students who had returned to caucus, even though the College is not yet back in session. They overwhelmingly supported Barack.

Don Smith, the County Democratic Chair, invited us to observe the precinct caucus that he also chairs. We had run into him when canvassing on his block on New Year’s Day, when it was minus 15 degrees wind chill (he is an emeritus professor of history at Grinnell.)

The caucus was a wonderful, if imperfect, demonstration of direct democracy. Don ran an efficient and fair process. It produced amazing and affirming results. This precinct awards more delegates than any of the other more than 1800 precincts in the state.

Barack won 57% of the delegates, more than twice as many as Edwards! It was astonishing that Hillary was not even close to being “viable” and won NO delegates.

As soon as the results from our precinct were official, we made a mad dash to the Obama celebration in Des Moines, 50 miles west. We arrived at the hall just as Barack was delivering his gracious and inspiring speech. The mood of the huge crowd was electric.

We got to bed at 1:30a and awoke today to hear Barack make a speech in New Hampshire. Five days to the next big hurdle.

Thanks to all of you who have supported the cause. This is just a first step, but an incredibly significant one.

More next week.

Please pass it along.


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#12 Markets, Polls and Pundits

Hello Everyone,

As a result of all that conspired to raise my expectations, I was disappointed with the New Hampshire results, as I’m sure most of you were.

As I seek some perspective, I thought I’d share some random observations with you.

Markets. Let me start with some ideas from our son, Peter, who is a professional equity investor. He has started to notice the parallels between presidential campaigns and stock markets. As a long-time investment banker, they really resonate with me.

  • The multitude of forces at play are too numerous and interact in such complicated ways, that explaining – let alone predicting – short-term movements is impossible.
  • Nonetheless, it is human nature to search for quick and simple explanations for such movements. Think of listening to the radio at rush hour while an “expert” explains why the market was up or down today, or forecasts what it will do tomorrow. The expert is expected to have plausible answers even though the reasons are unknowable.
  • Even in bull markets, stocks never go straight up.
  • When things seem to be too good to be true, they probably aren’t true.
  • Meeting or exceeding so-called “earnings expectations” often are more important in the short-term than actual results (for example, if a company’s actual earnings are up substantially, say 19%, but analysts’ expectations were for 20%, the stock’s price will usually plunge.)

Pundits. Returning to politics, it seems to this political novice that none of us should have expected Barack to have locked up this presidential nomination in the space of six short days! Yet, the pundits – and human nature – led us to expect that, after the surprise in Iowa. Group think prevailed. Expectations became inflated. “Rush hour” analyses and predictions were plentiful. We should have known better.

Polls and Perspectives. In past Obamagrams, I have warned us about taking the polls too seriously. I didn’t believe them when I didn’t like the results; I shouldn’t have believed them when I did like the results.

But let’s put things in perspective.

Barack has made enormous progress in a very short time. According to Gallup, less than two months ago, he trailed in New Hampshire by 14 points. He lost by only three points. During the same time, a 17 point gap in the national polls has evaporated. At least, that’s
what the polls say.

Votes. So far, in the first two states, it appears that more people have “voted” for Barack than for Hillary. He won in Iowa by nine points and lost in New Hampshire by three. (The number of people who caucused for Barack could be estimated as 38% of the
approximately 225,000 Iowa caucus-goers; he received 103,000 votes in New Hampshire.)

And now, as they used to say on “Cheers,” everybody knows his name. All across the country. And it’s effectively become a two-person race, down from the eight that started. Who would have believed it possible last January?

Is This a “Bull Market” for Barack? I have long believed that presidential elections are more of a “matching” process than a “selling” contest. That the electorate, especially at major turning points, picks the right candidate for the needs of that time.

As Barack says, “There is something happening in America.” I agree.

Others do, too. One example is the “Bipartisan Forum” held at the University of Oklahoma last Sunday and Monday. As many of you know, it brought together 14 current or former senators, congressmen, governors and mayors from both parties. The group most notably included New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who reportedly is considering a self-financed campaign for president as an independent.

In their transcript http, this group:

  • Calls for rejecting pessimism,
  • Asks for stopping politics as usual which seeks to divide us for political gain,
  • Pleads for bringing us together,
  • Argues that bipartisanship is possible; it is not some romantic dream.

Sounds like Barack Obama to me!

This is the antithesis of the cry from Hillary in Iowa to “turn up the heat” on the Republicans.

I am more convinced than ever that we have the perfect candidate for this historic moment in our country’s history. We all need to be patient and persistent as this bull market runs its natural course.

Please “pass it on.”


adobe pdf file Click here to download this article in PDF format.


adobe pdf file Attachment: Bipartisan Forum

#13 New Kind of New Citizenship

Hello Everyone,

With this Obamagram, I am forwarding an excerpt from one of the same that Professor Danielle Allen has sent to her friends and colleagues. In it she argues that “the Obama campaign is seeking to re-invent democratic, grass-roots politics for a country with a
population of 300 million by inventively and intelligently deploying the powers of new social networking technologies”. This is, in fact, part of what Barack is talking about when he promises “change”.

For those of you who don’t remember her from my introduction to a previous message, Danielle is ideally suited to make argument. She is a professor at both the University of Chicago (where she was also Dean of Humanities) and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. A recipient of a MacArthur “genius” award, she has two PhD’s: one from Cambridge in classics and one from Harvard, appropriately, in political science. I am honored to serve with her on both the Amherst College Board of Trustees and the Governing Board of The University of Chicago Charter Schools (interestingly, Austan Goolsbee, Barack’s top economic advisor and a professor at the UofC’s business school, is also on the latter board.) Danielle has recently written about new forms of citizenship in her wonderfully-incisive book, Talking to Strangers.

Please pass this along to as many people as possible. We are trying to expose Barack’s thinking to as many people as we can before the big day of primaries and caucuses on Feb 5.

As always, please pass it on.


adobe pdf file Click here to download this article in PDF format.


adobe pdf file Attachment: Danielle Allen’s Obamagram

#14 Delegates Matter

Hello Everyone,

Here, as part of my on-going series of Obamagrams, are some observations following the thud that was last Saturday’s Nevada caucuses – I say a thud because they didn’t matter. A much ballyhooed contest — in a relatively small, newly-designated “early state” that hasn’t had caucuses before — just didn’t prove much. Other than that this nominating process is a marathon, not a sprint. And, that it is a now two-person race.

Delegates matter. The current nominating system for the Democratic Party is still rather new.

It has not been tested when the nomination has been wide open — when there was no incumbent president or vice president running – which goes back to before FDR.

Winning delegates is all that matters. This is especially true because Barack and Hillary have each raised more than $100 million. Neither has to rely on “early-state momentum” to fill his or her coffers in order to keep going.

The following table shows you how close this race really is:

Delegates Won
  IA NH NV Total
Obama 16 9 13 38
Clinton 15 9 12 36

It also shows you how much further there is to run. Remember, it takes 2,025 delegates to win the Democratic nomination. So after all the commotion over the first three contests, neither candidate has won as many as 2% of delegates needed to prevail (this excludes so-called “super delegates” — party officials who are not bound to vote for any candidate.)

This is also like baseball – the final score is all that matters, not how many innings you win. And, even though these are two “heavyweight” candidates, there will be no earlyround knockouts here.

Vote totals are even, too. The following is my very rough attempt to see how many people have caucused or voted for Barack and Hillary so far.

  Barack Hillary
Iowa (est. turnout: 240,000)    
% Won 38% 29%
“Votes” 91,000 70,000
New Hampshire (turnout: 284,000)    
% Won 37% 39%
Votes 105,000 111,000
Nevada (est. turnout: 115,000)    
% Won 45% 51%
“Votes” 52,000 59,000
  _______ ______
  248,000 240,000
  ====== ======

Remember, there are 169,000,000 registered voters in the U.S. So, these totals are tiny.

Two points:

  • It looks like a dead heat to me.
  • It won’t be over soon.

A marathon. For months, the pundits and pollsters told us that Hillary would walk away with the nomination. Not so fast. After Iowa, they said Barack would win in New Hampshire, and Hillary would be a goner. Wrong. Next, Nevada would be a big deal. It wasn’t.

Now, South Carolina will be the decider. It won’t be.

South Carolina has a grand total of 45 delegates to award through its primary. If either Barack or Hillary were to win all of them, his or her total would still be less than 5% of the 2,025 delegates needed to win the nomination.

And, don’t let anyone tell you that Barack is simply “the black candidate” if he wins South Carolina.

It is unlikely that this race will be over on Super Tuesday, either.

Twenty-two states will hold Democratic contests on February 5. They will award about 2,100 delegates. Let’s say either Barack or Hillary wins 50% of the SC vote (worth about 23 delegates) and 50% of the Super Tuesday vote (worth about 1,050 delegates.) Then he or she would still only have about 1,100 of the 2,025 delegates needed to win the nomination. (Note: the largest fraction either one has won so far is 50.7%.)

Settle in for awhile. The last primary is in June, and the convention is in August.

The real Nevada surprise. Another little nugget to savor. Most pundits and pollsters have failed to point out that the big surprise in Nevada was not the Obama-Clinton result. It was that the polls widely missed their mark again – this time on Edwards.

In polls released one to three days before the caucuses, Las Vegas and Reno newspapers and Zogby predicted Edwards would get between 12% and 27% of the votes. He got 4% — and no delegates.

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to spend less time watching TV and reading the newspapers searching for insights into this process. Much like when “reporting” on the stock market, when it comes to elections, they are largely in the entertainment business.

Please pass it on.


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#15 Hopeful, but …

Hello Everyone,

Carolina – and Caroline – were very sweet. Teddy is even sweeter. And so is Toni Morrison.

Some of you may remember two things I’ve been saying about Barack from the very beginning. First, I’ve said I haven’t been truly excited about any presidential candidate for 40 years – not since 1968 and Bobby Kennedy. So, I can personally relate to Caroline’s word’s, “I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president …”

And I have also said – usually to raised eyebrows – that I believe that Barack embodies some qualities of JFK and RFK, as well as Ronald Reagan. Intellect, courage, style, eloquence, passion and optimism.

Even with all this good news, we must remember there is still a long way to go in this contest.

Votes and delegates remain the only things that matter (see attached New York Times article).

Barack’s lead is increasing both in votes received and delegates won. In fact, in terms of delegates, he hasn’t lost a state yet.

  Obama Clinton
IA 91 70
NH 105 111
NV 52 59
SC 295 141
Total 543 381

Importantly, Super Tuesday will probably not prove decisive because there aren’t enough delegates in play and Democrats award them proportionately in each state. Remember, fewer than 2,100 delegates will be awarded that day. So, even if Barack won 60% of all of those delegates, he’d only have about 1,300 in total – well short of the 2,025 needed to lock up the nomination. Obviously, Hillary needs even more Feb. 5 delegates to lock it up.

I also can’t resist pointing out how far off the polls were again in South Carolina. They said Barack would get 10% of the white vote, when he actually got 24%. Most notably, the victory margin predicted for Barack was between 8 and 16% – but his actual margin approached 30%. The pollsters’ shaky reputations remain just that.

So, I’m trying to stay cool and keep focused on delegates, votes and the long run. This could last until June – or even August. And, it will be very expensive.

Following the blockbuster Kennedy and Morrison endorsements, I have to close with a grassroots endorsement that speaks volumes about Barack’s roots and authenticity.

When Penny and I returned from Iowa, I got the attached email from a friend of mine named Joseph Strickland. In 2001, Joe founded a community services organization that works with low-income youth in Woodlawn, on Chicago’s South Side where Barack had also been a community organizer. Like Caroline Kennedy, Joe wrote about how he realized seven years ago that “…this man was someone who was special.”

…I met Barack at a state Democratic convention several years ago [when Barack was an Illinois State Senator] and I was sharing with him that I just started MAGIC and we asked dozens of elected officials for a small donation and that the Friends of Barack Obama were the only group that responded… he began to talk about his organizing work and asked me some questions … As we were talking I was conscious of the people who were waiting rather impatiently for him to notice them and I said to him “it was nice meeting you, but I do not want to take up too much of your time.” He went on to tell me how important grassroots organizations are and he remained locked in to our conversation for another ten minutes. So, on that day, I knew this man was someone who was special…

Joe’s full email is attached, which he has given me permission to share with you.

Onward and upward to Super Tuesday – and beyond.

Please pass it on.


adobe pdf file Click here to download this article in PDF format.


adobe pdf file Attachment: Email


adobe pdf file Attachment: Chart

#16 Courage to Choose Change

Hello Everyone,

I think we – together – have an opportunity to alter the course of American history if, as Senator Edward Kennedy said this week, we have “the courage to choose change.” The courage to choose change.

In 1513, Niccolo Machiavelli, in his masterpiece, The Prince, described why it is so difficult for societies to change:

….there is nothing more difficult to execute, nor more dubious of success… than to introduce a new order of things; for he who introduces it has all those who profit from the old order as his enemies, and he has only lukewarm allies in all those who might profit from the new. This lukewarmness partly stems from fear of their adversaries… and partly from the skepticism of men, who do not truly believe in new things unless they have actually had personal experience of them.

Senator Kennedy was 30 when he joined the U.S. Senate; now in his 46th year, he is its second-longest serving member.

This week, he was passionate and unequivocal in embracing Senator Obama as the first one in over 40 years worthy of inheriting his brothers’ legacies. Senator Kennedy began by boldly stating, “I feel change in the air.” He concludes with, “My friends, I ask you to join me in this historic journey – to have the courage to choose change.” I urge you to read his speech, which is attached, even if you have already heard it.

I am also attaching Toni Morrison’s letter to Barack in which she endorsed him – the only time that she has publicly supported a presidential candidate. You will recall that she is the one who, ten years ago, anointed President Clinton “the first black president.”

As you might expect from one who received the Nobel Prize for literature, Ms. Morrison’s letter is not only eloquent, but elegant. A sampling:

Our future is ripe, outrageously rich in its possibilities. Yet unleashing the glory of that future will require a difficult labor, and some may be so frightened of its birth they will refuse to abandon their nostalgia for the womb. There have been a few prescient leaders in our past, but you are the man for this time.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal quoted President Carter using words that came close to an endorsement of Barack, while saying he will remain neutral:

He (Barack) has an extraordinary oratory…I think that Obama will be almost automatically a healing factor in the animosity now that exists, that relates to our country and its government.

I will close with a more personal quotation.

On Tuesday, I had lunch with a family friend who went to Grinnell and was a Rhodes Scholar. On his thirtieth birthday in 1968, he had lunch with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the now legendary scholar, four-term Senator from New York, and U.N. Ambassador, who served in four successive presidential administrations, from Kennedy through Ford. A true bi-partisan. It is possible.

Moynihan was trying to determine whether our friend was worthy of working for him in the Nixon White House. During the course of a wide-ranging and erudite discussion typical of Moynihan, our friend vividly and verbatim remembers one of Moynihan’s insights, offered with a characteristically poetic turn of phrase:

America has within its gift to become the first truly multi-racial society in history.

Our friend recited this quotation with great emotion. I believe it captures best but one of the many ways in which we might “profit from the new” if only we have “the courage to choose change.”

Please pass it on.


adobe pdf file Click here to download this article in PDF format.


adobe pdf file Attachment: Edward Kennedy’s endorsement of Barack Obama


adobe pdf file Attachment: T. Morrison Endorsement of Obama

#17 Super Tuesday for Super Delegates

Hello Everyone,

On the eve of over-hyped “Super Tuesday,” I’d like to offer my perspective. I think Super Tuesday is not about how many states Barack “wins” (remember my previous analogy to “innings” in baseball), but about how many Pledged Delegates he collects (how many “runs” he scores.)

But, upon closer examination, I think I see Barack pursuing an even more savvy strategy on Tuesday. I think he realizes that there is another “game” being simultaneously played here – one that’s more akin to gymnastics than to baseball. Where judges assign points based on subjective assessments.

It seems to me that Barack is trying to both win Pledged Delegates (score runs) and influence Super Delegates (impress the judges.) More on Super Delegates in a minute.

Note that Barack is personally campaigning, has more offices, and is advertising in more states than Senator Clinton. Why did he go to “red state” Idaho on Saturday and tiny Delaware on Sunday, for instance?

By doing well in the small states which have few delegates, and in red states, I believe that he is trying to:

  • demonstrate that he has wide appeal across the country, to independents and Republicans, as well as Democrats.
  • be true to his famous assertion that he sees “not just red states or blue states, but the United States of America.”
  • set a tone for the general election: by campaigning across the country, not just in a few “battleground” states, he seeks to unify the electorate and create a broad mandate for change once in office

This strategy, in turn, could fortify his argument – to voters in the states with primaries and caucuses still to come – but, most importantly, to Super Delegates (the “judges”) – that he is more electable than Senator Clinton.

For those of us new to this complicated nominating process, a few words about Super Delegates. I have avoided this complexity until now but it’s worth a few words.

Of the 4,049 total delegates to the Democratic National Convention in August, only 3,253 (or about 80%) are selected by the voters. The other 796 (almost 20%) are so-called Super Delegates – party leaders and elected officials (governors, mayors, members of congress, etc.) who are appointed, not elected. Super Delegates can decide for themselves who they will vote for at the national convention, and could ultimately hold sway in an extremely close contest.

Some Super Delegates have already declared their preferences, but they are not at all bound by such declarations. These are people who are highly knowledgeable about politics and deeply committed to the Democratic Party. They want the party nominee to win in November. But, they are also motivated by self-interest. Those who are on the ballot themselves in November want the “top of the ticket” to be as strong as possible – they need those coattails. So, they will probably back the nominee who they think is most likely to win in November.

Remember that only 1,681 Pledged Delegates (about 42% of the 4,049 total delegates) are up for grabs on Tuesday. Even if one of the two candidates were to win 60% of all those delegates – which seems unlikely – on top of the delegates already won, he or she would still have only about one-half of the 2,025 delegates needed to lock up the nomination.

So, post-February 5 states will matter. Electability will matter. And, Super Delegates may matter if this contest goes all the way to the convention – which it may do. Watch the results like you would both a baseball game and a gymnastics meet.

Two final notes. First, having raised more “primary” money (the only money useable prior to the August convention) than Senator Clinton has to date – and over $32mm in January alone – Barack has plenty of staying power. And, lastly, even though we’ve seen that polls are pretty unreliable, Gallup’s most recent National poll shows Obama and Clinton in a statistical dead heat.

I am attaching two pieces for those glutton enough for further reading. The first one is from my friend, Prof. Danielle Allen, who has taken a leave to work for Barack in her native California. Her last couple of paragraphs are particularly incisive – about how Barack is already reminding us Americans about how to use our complex democratic institutions. The second is a thoughtful piece by Frank Rich from yesterday’s New York Times, in case you missed it.

I continue to trust that the voters will “have the courage to choose change.”

As always, please pass it on.


adobe pdf file Click here to download this article in PDF format.


adobe pdf file Attachment: Obamagram from Bakersfield


adobe pdf file Attachment: Ask Not What J.F.K. Can Do for Obama

#18 Delegates and Dollars

Hello Everyone,

This will be a quick note to make a few observations following so-called Super Tuesday. I am doing this on the fly from Bethesda, MD where our fourth grandchild, and first grandson, was born on Wednesday.

Many of us don’t know how to feel right now. American voters are like American sports fans – we like to know who has won after two or three hours of competition. We don’t like ties, or games that go on too long. Well, we have a tie on our hands – which is, in fact, good news when you’re supposed to be the underdog. I am increasingly optimistic about Barack’s chances to win the nomination. But we will all have to be patient.

As I’ve been saying for awhile – delegates matter. Now, we should start following the money more closely, too.

Getting my hands on reliable numbers will take awhile. In the meantime, I suggest we not believe everything we read in newspapers and hear on television.

Pledged Delegates

  1. Pledged Delegates (awarded by the primaries and caucuses) are the principal indicators of how the campaigns are doing.
  2. Various preliminary sources indicate that Barack remains ahead by a handful of Pledged Delegates.
  3. Neither candidate is anywhere close to having a decisive number of delegates – so we have a long way to go.
  4. Barack won more states on Tuesday than Senator Clinton, so he maintains that lead, too. But, remember, this is like winning innings in baseball – nice, but not determinative.
  5. Barack, as we expected, won in more so-called “red states” than Senator Clinton.
  6. Tuesday’s preliminary popular vote in the primaries was virtually dead even despite the fact that Senator Clinton “won” more of the larger states. In addition, Barack won six of the seven caucus states on Tuesday, but caucus-goers are not included in the popular vote tabulation. So I think it is safe to conclude that starting with Iowa more people have voted or caucused for Barack than Senator Clinton or any of the Republican candidates.


There is one other aspect of this contest to keep your eye on – the money race.

While many of us are disturbed by the vast amounts of money being spent on these campaigns, it is a fact of life – and another valuable campaign indicator.

Here, too, I have more questions than answers at this point.

  1. According to the Federal Election Commission, Senator Clinton raised almost $116 million in 2007. She transferred another $10 million from her senate campaign to her presidential campaign. Barack raised a little more than $102 million in 2007.
  2. Only primary election money can be spent before the convention in August. General election money can be spent only after the convention.
  3. The vast majority of Barack’s total was raised as primary election money; in fact, we members of his National Finance Committee have been repeatedly instructed to not raise money for the general election.
  4. We suspect that a significant portion of Senator Clinton’s funds were raised for the general election. She does not disclose how much.
  5. Barack raised more than $32 million in January 2008, or perhaps as much as $15-$20 million more than Senator Clinton. I don’t think that she has disclosed how much she has raised in January yet. This would mean that Barack’s total cash collected through January approximates $134 million. This compares to a rough estimate for Senator Clinton of $141 million.
  6. So why has Senator Clinton just loaned her campaign $5 million? Why are her campaign manager and others going without pay?
  7. What are the sources of the Clintons’ wealth – and its magnitude – that enables them to make this loan?
  8. In roughly 36 hours following the closing of the polls on Tuesday night, Barack’s campaign reported raising over $7 million. To date, more than 650,000 people have contributed to his campaign at an average of slightly over $200 per donor. This is a strong indicator of Barack’s wide appeal. Many of these folks have the capacity to make additional donations.

Delegates and money matter. Many questions remain. Few precise answers yet. But, Barack clearly seems to be doing well on both fronts.

More to come as I learn more.

As always, please pass it on.


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#19 Danielle Allen

Hello Everyone,

I’m passing along another superb piece by Professor Danielle Allen from the University of Chicago and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, whose other observations I have forwarded previously.

Professor Allen’s deeply-incisive analysis is attached. Here are just a few excerpts from it:

You will have noticed that Senator Obama is beginning the delicate adjustment into general election mode. He has turned his attention to John McCain and he has begun to bring his long list of policy specifics (which he has had from the beginning) into his campaign speeches themselves, instead of leaving the work of conveying these to his website and townhall meetings. At this point of transition, then, it is worth noting the difference between the conversation that we have had for the primary and the conversation that we can expect to have for the general election. This shift is beginning a little earlier than I for one had anticipated because the Republican nominating process reached clarity sooner than people expected. As a consequence, the primary conversation and general election conversation will blur for a few weeks. It is nonetheless useful, I think, to spell out what the stakes have been for the primary conversation and what they are likely to be for the general election conversation. In my view, a candidate for President needs a vision in
at least three areas:

(1) A candidate needs a vision of what kind of person he or she wishes to be; call it the character vision. This is the one that tells people what kind of judgment a person has when they have to decide on particular actions fast.

(2) A candidate needs a vision of how political processes do and can work. This is the vision for how change can be brought about. Call this the citizenship vision.

(3) A candidate needs a vision of the core principles that will guide his or her policy choices. Call this one the policy vision…

With respect to the character vision, Obama has argued for leadership that recognizes that words matter; this means both that we should attend to the principles we articulate and that we should be able to stick by what we say. As he uses them, words are not strategic markers to be placed largely with a view to political expedience. Senator Clinton, for instance, has explicitly argued that one needs to decide what to say up front based on an assessment of where one wants to conclude the conversation in the expectation that one will have to give ground in the political battles over policy outcomes. One should, in her account, start with a position different, stronger, or more extreme than where one actually hopes to end up. She has, for instance, said, with respect to health care, that the reason for beginning by talking about “universal health care,” is because if you don’t start there, you won’t end up with anything. But this approach to language has led to an odd reconfiguration of the meaning of “universal health care” from the colloquially understood meaning of “universal provision” to the new and jarring meaning of “universally required.” Because she is using language to set up a political game, her words lose their grip on reality. This, I believe, is her fundamental problem vis `a vis the perception that she is
not trustworthy.

Obama, in contrast, believes that words should be used to present a genuine goal and then to organize the conversations and processes that can move people toward that goal. Obama’s strong commitments to open, conversational political processes and to personal trustworthiness are deeply related to each other. They depend on each other. His commitment to a politics of respectfulness toward opponents is equally important here. His policy of respectfulness requires that one start by taking people at their word. In contrast, people who stake out positions strategically have difficult taking others at their word and thereby inject habits and patterns of distrustfulness into their interactions. These habits and patterns of distrustfulness then have their own ramifying, negative effects…

With respect to the “citizenship vision,” Senator Obama has been truly brilliant. He has made a clear case for individual agency, personal responsibility, organization, and collective action and then his campaign has made the lofty ideals of hope and change real by teaching tens of thousands of Americans how to participate in grass-roots politics. His methods for effecting change are doing just that. He who was originally the underdog has upset the politics of the Democratic Party by virtue of developing and operationalizing a vigorously democratic idea of how change can be brought about through political processes. In other words, on this point above all, he has not only spoken but also executed.

I hope these excerpts give you a flavor for Professor Allen’s fascinating analysis.

Please pass it along.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: The Request for Help

#20 The Next 19 Days: Is March 4 the Next Super Tuesday?

Hello Everyone,

Over the past year, I have written in this format on many topics. Among other things, I have reminded all of us that patience is required. We are being rewarded for that. Now we have to bear down to help Barack do well on March 4. Recognizing that this may go into April or June or beyond, I sense we have a major opportunity on what might prove to be the real Super Tuesday.

First, some observations on the state of play. We have talked before about the importance of “delegates and dollars.” I want to talk about those and about a number of other “indicators” which give a fuller picture of how well Barack is doing.


The more I learn about the delegate selection process, the more I realize how little I know. The New York Times has been puzzling about this, too. The attached article from the Times provides some insights into both the complexity and fluidity of the delegate selection and counting process.

As I’ve said repeatedly, Pledged Delegates (won through primaries and caucuses) are what we should focus on. As I understand it, Super Delegates (allocated by the party to party and elected officials, like governors and members of congress) were created to give party regulars a means to intervene if the primary/caucus process seems to be producing a distorted result that they deem would be bad for the party. Despite all the pundits perseverating over Super Delegates, I doubt they will eventually play a decisive role in the nominating process. They should ratify, not decide, who the nominee should be.

Going forward, all of us should ignore any count we see that includes Super Delegates or subtract them from it.

After several attempts, the Times seems to have arrived at a similar conclusion. The attached Delegate Count table in today’s edition is the best one I’ve seen. Wisely, the Times has decided to leave the Super Delegates out of their counts, and, importantly, have decided – after some vacillation — to include caucus-awarded delegates. It also provides three other counts, from the Associated Press and from the two campaigns themselves.

The Times Pledged Delegates table can be summarized as follows:

      Clinton Obama
  NYT AP Campaign Campaign
Obama 1095 1112 1141 1139
Clinton 982 978 1004 1003

You will notice that Barack’s lead ranges from 113 to 137. The difference may largely lie in the Times’ omission of 68 “unallocated” delegates which will eventually be divided between the two candidates.

Several commentators have said it is mathematically unlikely that Senator Clinton can catch up to Barack in Pledged Delegates. Some say she would have to get over 60% of the vote in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania to do so. That seems highly unlikely because she has attained that level only once in the 35 contests so far – and that was in her home state of Arkansas.

The Clinton campaign’s hope that Texas and Ohio will be her firewall – after potentially losing 10 straight contests – is reminiscent of Mayor Giuliani’s failed Florida firewall strategy.


As many of you know, my wife, Penny Sebring, does educational research at the University of Chicago. When trying to assess the progress of students in urban public schools, there is currently an over-emphasis on standardized test scores. Think of No Child Left Behind. Simple-minded. One dimensional.

Sophisticated researchers look beyond the test scores to other “indicators” to try to better evaluate the health of schools.

In a similar vein, we can examine other indicators, in addition to delegates, to discern the health of the Obama campaign. Overwhelmingly, they look very good.

Contests Won. Barack has won 22 contests to Senator Clinton’s 12. Remember, however, that contests are like innings in baseball and delegates are more important — like runs scored.

Red States Won. Barack: 11; Senator Clinton: 5.

Popular Vote. All the reports I’ve seen, imprecise as they are, indicate that Barack is ahead, despite Senator Clinton’s repeated attempts to draw attention to the small handful of large states that she has won.

Enthusiasm Gap.” The Times coined this apt term. Caucuses: Enthusiasm is evident in Barack’s dominance in the caucuses (10-1.) It takes a much greater personal commitment to caucus for a candidate then to simply vote in a primary, as Penny and I witnessed first hand in Iowa. A superior ability to organize is surely another factor in caucus success; Barack should get indicator points for that, too. Crowd Size: We’ve all seen the basketball-arena-size, 15-20,000-person crowds Barack draws everywhere he goes. Winning Margin: In the last 8 contests,

Barack’s winning margin has not been less than 18 percentage points, and in one case it exceeded 51 percentage points, even ignoring the 84 percentage point blowout in the Virgin Islands. Senator Clinton’s vote total has reached 41% only once during this stretch. No contest has been remotely close. In the 35 contests so far, Barack has received 60% or more of the vote 12 times, while Senator Clinton has reached it only one time – in her home state of Arkansas.

Demographics. Barack has won the Latino vote in 5 states. He has won the women’s vote in 16 contests, compared to Senator Clinton’s 11.

Best Sellers and Grammys. Both of Barack’s books are back on the New York Times best seller list. He recently has won his second Grammy for his recording of Audacity of Hope; he won one earlier for Dreams from My Father.

Money. Fundraising breadth is also another indicator of voter sentiment – like a “proxy primary” where donations count like votes. “Dollar-votes.”

As a sometime college fundraiser, I have always believed that alumni funds are like elections. Alumni who are proud to be associated with their alma mater, give to it. So the number of alumni who give is a good indicator of a college’s overall health. It seems that this applies to modern political campaigns, too.

Last year, over 500,000 donors gave to Barack’s campaign, probably double or triple the number who gave to Senator Clinton’s. In only six weeks this year, once he started to be validated by the voters – 300,000 additional people have given to Barack. The Clinton campaign’s donor count is less visible – I heard a 100,000 number for a certain stretch in 2008.

Money is the critical fuel for the campaign’s engine. It also provides an indication of how skilled and strategic the driver of the car is compared to the other drivers on the track. Barack’s campaign has a full tank of gas, and it’s constantly being refilled. Our competitor’s tank seems to be running low. This is, in part, because we’ve raised many more “currently usable dollars” – primary dollars – then Senator Clinton has. How much more is difficult to discern due to lack of disclosure. All we know is that she has been raising a lot of general election dollars – “not currently usable dollars” – while we have not.

Senator Clinton seems to have used up her primary dollars faster, hence the need for her recent $5 million bridge loan. Perhaps she anticipated that the finish line would be Super Tuesday, February 5 – a miscalculation. All of this calls into question the experience and judgment of the Clinton team.

In January alone, we filled our tank even faster than last year — $36 million compared to Senator Clinton’s $13.5 million.

A Proxy for “Experience.” At the start of the campaign, Barack said to us that one way we would be able to judge whether he was capable of doing the President’s job would be to judge how well he manages a sprawling, complex, long, and intense campaign. So far, Barack seems to be passing with flying colors. Financial management: Excellent. We just talked about that. Barack’s campaign seems to have out-performed Senator Clinton’s campaign on all fronts – and she is suppose to be the most “experienced.” Campaign Leadership: The
same people at the top from the start. No shakeups that I know of. Big field organizations established early and in most of the states. The Message: Consistent. Right on target. Think of the campaign’s slogans — which have never varied: “Change We Can Believe In” – “Stand for Change” – “Fired up and Ready to Go” — “Yes We Can.” In fact, the last of these was first used in 2003 during the Senate campaign. Our competition can make no such claims of consistency and recently both Senator Clinton and Senator McCain have had the
audacity to actually borrow some of our slogans!


I am beginning to feel that the nomination is within Barack’s reach. Where’s the finish line? No one knows.

I have been asked by many people – how can I help? Two ways. Keep spreading the word that Barack is the “real deal.” And keep adding fuel – dollars – to the tank.

The number of dollars raised and the number of donors are both critical in getting Barack to the finish line. Anyone 16 years or older can give. Every $30, $60, or $600 donation given on-line at barackobama.com enables each of us to play our small part in making
history and turning the page.

Time is on our side. We now have ample evidence that people will vote for Barack if they get to know him in person, on TV, in the press and through advertising. With only 19 days to go to the next Super Tuesday (Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont on March 4) we have it within our power to enable voters in those states to get to know Barack. If they do, most will vote for him.

Please pass it along.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: The Request for Help

#21 Some Perspective on Hope and Hard Work

Hello Everyone,

As we approach what may prove to be the real Super Tuesday, I am groping to find a perspective with a wider angle than the professional pundits have provided. As I’ve said before, short-term analysis of the stock market is of little value. Markets are too complex. Primaries are, too.

Nonetheless, I sense that something extraordinary is going on here. It will be some time before we can fully grasp what is happening, if ever. But, we Americans are an impatient people who seek instant understanding. I have some theories, but let’s start with some startling, and hopeful, facts.

  • Barack Obama is leading in Pledged Delegates – 1,193 to 1,034, according to RealClearPolitics.com.
  • Barack is leading in Total Delegates (including Super Delegates) – 1,374 to 1,275, using the same source.
  • Barack is leading in the popular vote – approximately 10.3 million to 9.4 million, even excluding the 12 caucuses held so far, 11 of which he’s won.
  • Overall, Barack has won 26 contests to Sen. Clinton’s 11.
    • Phase I (the Early States) – before the first Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, Barack won 2 of the first 4 contests (IA and SC) and lost NH and NV, but wound up leading in Pledged Delegates anyway.
    • Phase II (the first Super Tuesday) – Barack won 13 states to Sen. Clinton’s 9, and Pledged Delegates counts were very close.
    • Phase III (the month between the two Super Tuesdays) – Barack won all 11 contests and opened up a sizeable lead in Pledged Delegates.
  • Enthusiasm Gap – Barack has won 16 contests with 60% or more of the vote. Sen. Clinton has reached that mark only 1 time – in Arkansas. Most observers say that she would have to get 60-65% of the vote in each of TX, OH and PA to tie Barack in Pledged Delegates by the end of the primary process.
  • Barack probably raised at least 10% to 15% more “primary” dollars in 2007 than Sen. Clinton did. He set an all-time one-month record in January 2008 (after his victory in Iowa), out-raising Sen. Clinton by more than 2.5 to 1.
  • The Obama campaign is approaching the 1 million donor mark. It probably has several times the number of donors than Sen. Clinton’s has.
  • Fun fact – Barack’s two books are once again on the New York Times paperback best seller list, now # 3 and # 6.
  • Another fun fact – I got an email from the Obama campaign last night saying that it cannot accommodate additional volunteers in the 4 largest Texas cities; too many people are volunteering.

The Enthusiasm Gap was first evident in the caucus results: 11 to 1 for Obama. Upon closer examination, the size of the gap is even more startling.

  • The first 3 contests (IA, NH and NV) seem to have been a feeling out period. Sen. Clinton won 2 of 3, but her margins of victory were small – 6 and 2 percentage points, respectively.
  • Then came South Carolina and the first blowout. Barack won by 28 percentage points.
  • In hindsight, the first Super Tuesday foreshadowed what was to follow. Barack won 13 states and lost 9. But, it is even more interesting to look at how he won. Barack won 8 states by more than 20 percentage points, 7 of them by more than 30 percentage points.
  • During his 11-contest winning streak since Feb. 5, Barack’s narrowest victory was 17 percentage points. He won one other by 19 points. His margin in the other 9 contests exceeded 20 points, with 3 of those exceeding 50 points. Extreme blowouts.

While none of us should be counting our chickens, this set of facts is impressive.

So, why is this happening? I haven’t a clue. But, I do know something big is going on.

Is it perhaps that voters are tired of politics as a spectator sport. A pugilistic spectator sport at that. Maybe they want to participate. Volunteer. Give $25, again and again.

Perhaps I’m my own best evidence. Why have I bothered to bug you with my musings over the past year? I’m no pro. I’m in pursuit of no personal gain. I write my Obamagrams without authority or permission. Why?

Why are many of you doing what you do? Why did you go to Iowa or South Carolina or wherever? In the last 24 hours, why have half a dozen people in Illinois and Washington, D.C., told me they were going to Ohio or Texas?

Something’s going on.

One last observation. Why is Sen. Clinton acting in a seemingly erratic way lately?

I must say I empathize. If ultimately, she is not the candidate, I don’t think it will be entirely or predominately her fault.

Some of it is. There is ample evidence that the most “experienced” candidate has proven to be the least effective “chief executive” of her campaign. She overspent on her easy senate re-election campaign, leaving less money to transfer to her presidential coffers. She has raised substantially less money for this campaign than her opponent, from many fewer donors. She pursued, as Frank Rich observed, an ill-fated “shock and awe” strategy, expecting to declare “mission accomplished” on Feb. 5. So much for experience and judgment.

As Danielle Allen and others have pointed out, the Obama campaign seems to have outworked and out-smarted the Clinton campaign so far. You can be assured that the Obama campaign is on the ground in Wyoming and Mississippi preparing for their respective March 8 and 11 caucus and primary. Then, a month later, Pennsylvania votes on April 22, with the handful of remaining contests spread out thereafter and into June. We should all remember that after the polls proved imperfect in New Hampshire, the Obama campaign did the hard work that produced its 25 to 10 record since.

I think Sen. Clinton is seeking to win in an environment that she misread and can not adapt to. A hopeful Barack Obama perfectly suits this moment, much like an optimistic Ronald Reagan did in 1980.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, John Hayes of the conservative The Weekly Standard quoted Reagan’s speech accepting the nomination:

More than anything else, I want my candidacy to unify our country, to renew the American spirit and sense of purpose. I want to carry our message to every American, regardless of party affiliation, who is a member of this community of shared values…For those who have
abandoned hope, we’ll restore hope and we’ll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again!

Hayes went on to say, “Throughout his campaign, Reagan fought off charges that his candidacy was built more on optimism than policies.”

I believe that Reagan’s brand of optimism was right for that time and Barack’s is even better suited for this one.

Perhaps Sen. Clinton is in the process of coming to grips with that reality, too. The
multiple moods that she has demonstrated over the recent past bring to mind Kubler-
Ross’s famous “five stages of death and dying”: denial, anger, bargaining, depression
and acceptance. Although not displayed in sequence, one can understand how seeming
acceptance can be exhibited by Sen. Clinton one day (“I’m honored…”) and anger
(“shame on you…”) can be in evidence the next.

We can only imagine how difficult it must be to see a long-held dream slip away after years of hot pursuit and after having paid such a steep price for admission.

One week until the next Super Tuesday. Will this one prove decisive? Will we march on? What is going on here? I don’t know. But, I’m hopeful. And, I know that we won’t be out-smarted or out-worked.

Please pass it on.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: Media and Candidate Methods of Counting Delegates Vary and So Do Totals


adobe pdf file Attachment: Delegate Counts for the Democrats

#22 Learning the Process – Chap. #1 – “Baseball Rules”

Hello Everyone,

Memorize this number: 167

It’s the middle of the night in Chicago, and I can’t sleep. Something’s bothering me about that number. So, I thought I’d write an Obamagram.

My sense of unease started to build when I read a headline on nytimes.com on my BlackBerry on Wednesday morning, March 4th. I was just getting off the plane for a short trip to London. The headline – from the New York Times, of all places – read something like “Clinton Gets Big Wins in Texas and Ohio.”

It turns out that that headline was misleading. According to the rules of the game – the Democratic nominating process – Obama won Texas! That’s because this particular game – like all games – has a scoring system. The system counts “Pledged Delegates.” They really should be called “elected delegates” because that’s how they are selected. A supposedly democratic process.

While there is still some counting going on, it looks like Barack won 99 Pledged Delegates, to Sen. Clinton’s 94 in Texas. That looks like an Obama win to me. Doesn’t it?

Sure, it’s more complicated than that in Texas. There was a “primary,” in which Sen. Clinton got 51% of the vote, 3 percentage points more than Barack’s 48%. But, after the polls closed, those who voted in the primary were eligible to participate in a caucus; it is estimated that more than a million voters did that. Barack won the caucus by 12 percentage points. Complicated – but those are the rules established by the party.

Maybe the media was impatient or they don’t know how to keep score, so they immediately “called” Texas for Sen. Clinton. They persist in this misleading characterization to this day – saying she won the Texas “primary” – which is technically true about that part of the process – but ignore Obama’s bigger win in the Texas “caucus” – and therefore his overall win in Texas.

So this travesty has awakened me. I worry deeply that complication has led to confusion. Confusion is never good.

I think it’s time we all tried to understand the complication. In my own simple way, in a series of Obamagrams over the next few weeks, I’m going to attempt to explain how I understand the Democratic nomination process. I am no expert, so I’m bound to make mistakes. When you find them, please let me know.

We have all been invited into this nominating process. Most of us have voted or caucused. Many of us have volunteered or donated. We all must continue to own this process. We must insist that it remains transparent and does not disappear behind closed doors. Our responsibilities have not ended; they are just beginning.

As Barack has repeatedly said, if he is elected, he will only be able to make change happen if we continue to participate as citizens. We might as well get in the habit now.

Our first obligation is to fully understand the process and its rules. If we throw up our hands and say it is out of our control now, it will be – with unknown consequences.

In this series of O-grams, I will try to deal with one topic at a time.

Let’s start at the beginning. What is this high-stakes game we are playing? How can be we begin to understand its complicated rules?


The best way I have found to explain the nomination process to myself is by using a “baseball” metaphor. The great American pastime.

We all know the basic rules of baseball. Why don’t we make a reasonable effort to learn the rules for selecting a presidential candidate?

So let’s begin. Think of the Democratic Party as the American League, the Republicans as the National League. Same game, different rules. The American League – the Democrats – drew up the rules roughly as follows.

  1. The Game. The entire nominating process resembles 1 very long baseball game.
  2. Innings. The game was originally designed to have 56 “innings,” rather than the standard 9.
  3. Stadiums. It is played over a 6 month period with each inning being played in 56 different stadiums in each of the 50 states and in 6 additional territories, districts, or other sites.
  4. Elimination. Originally there were multiple teams playing in the game, but all but 2 would voluntarily drop out after a few innings.
  5. Runs. Obviously, the team that scores the most runs – cumulatively – wins the game.
  6. Limited Runs. Unlike real baseball, under the American League rules, there are a limited and pre-determined, but highly variable, number of runs that can be scored in any individual inning. Think of “Pledged Delegates” as the equivalent of runs. Late in the game, it can be impossible to overtake the leader due to the limited number of available runs remaining.
  7. “Winning Innings Does Not Matter. Cumulative runs scored are all that matter. The number of innings “won” does not matter! This is critical. This is baseball, not tennis. Many of the “sportswriters” covering the game, whether through ignorance, laziness, the desire to sustain the drama or whatever, will choose to merely report which team wins which innings. This is irrelevant and misleading. This distracts us from focusing on runs scored, in the inning and cumulatively, and who’s ahead and by how much — the only metrics that matter. Some observers or participants will even try to confuse us by arguing that runs scored in larger stadiums matter more than those scored in smaller venues. Not in baseball.
  8. National League: Winner-Take-All. Critically, the National League (Republicans) has some distinctly different rules. Over the same time period, it is playing the same number of innings, in most of the same stadiums, and mostly on the same dates. Like in the American League, there are a fixed, but variable number of runs available in each inning. But here’s the big difference – and endless source of confusion – whoever scores more runs in a particular inning gets to add all of the available runs in that inning to his cumulative total of runs scored for the game. The loser in the inning gets zero. Winner takes all. Therefore, only in the National League, who wins each inning, greatly matters. So, it confuses the heck out of the media – and the rest of us – when they are simultaneously reporting results from the National and American leagues. That is also why a National League team can get to the slaughter rule faster.
  9. Slaughter Rule. Back to the American League rules. Borrowing from Little League rules, there is a “slaughter rule”, so the game can be halted early if one team reaches a certain run total.
  10. Owners. The slaughter rule can be invoked in a second way. The League’s “owners” (think “Super Delegates”) can award up to a pre-determined number of “unearned runs” in order to end the game if they think it is in the “best interests” of the League to end the game early. In designing the rules, the owners reserved this power for themselves presumably not to dictate who wins in games fairly played by worthy opponents. Rather, the owners wanted a safe guard provision to halt a game where one team is cheating or doing something else that would be considered detrimental to the long-term interests of the American League. Once the game has started, however, the owners should be loath to turn this game of baseball into a “gymnastics meet” or “figure skating competition” where the owners become “judges” who take it upon themselves to decide, on purely subjective bases and in secret, the outcome of the competition (I will write a separate O-gram on Super Delegates.)
  11. Exhibitions. Before the game began in January, due to some irregularities on the part of 2 host stadiums, all of the teams agreed to shorten the game by 2 innings, to 54. These 2 host stadiums invited some of the teams to visit anyway, but to play 2 purely exhibition innings, and some of the teams accepted. But, all the teams agreed that any runs scored in these exhibition innings would not be added to the official run totals of any team.

This is how I see the rules of the nomination process. I think it is incumbent on each of us to become familiar with them. With our work and our money, we bought very expensive tickets to this game. We should demand that it is played by the rules. We should object loudly if anyone tries to change the rules, especially this late in the game.

My next O-gram will focus on Pledged Delegates.

Barack’s lead in Pledged Delegates is virtually insurmountable at 167. This lead is the most important single factor to focus on. Sen. Clinton would have to score more than 66% of the available runs in each of the remaining 9 innings to catch Barack in Pledged Delegates. Even if the owners decide to replay the two exhibition innings, she would have to score over 60% of the runs in each of the then remaining 11 innings. She has reached the 60% mark only 4 times in the 45 innings played so far. Barack has reached that mark 21 times – in many cases exceeding it by wide margins. That’s why his lead is so large. Forget who “wins” Pennsylvania or any other inning. The only thing that matters is Barack’s lead, and whether it increases or decreases and by how many runs. It is highly unlikely that Sen. Clinton can overcome Barack’s big lead. So, that’s why she is trying to change the rules.

You will see various Pledged Delegate counts from different sources due to some technical reasons. The differences are minor. Don’t let this confuse you. The conclusions are the same. The 167 run lead is based on numbers the Obama campaign is using. I will say more about this in my next O-gram.

More than ever, it is important for you to pass this along to as many people as you can. And start educating people about the rules. Start telling people that Barack won the inning played in Texas – a “big” state, by the way, with the 2nd largest population in the
country. Finally, tell everyone to focus only on the size of his lead – 167.

Your comments, corrections, and suggestions are most welcome.


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#23 Learning the Process – Chap. #2 – “Runs Scored”

Hello Everyone,

In Chapter #1 on “Baseball”, I urged you to remember the number 167.

That’s the size of Barack’s lead in Pledged Delegates.

There is one other number to remember as everyone obsesses over Pennsylvania: 66%.

That is the percentage of all the remaining Pledged Delegates that Sen. Clinton must win in order to TIE Barack by the end of the process. An almost impossible task.

So, for Sen. Clinton to “win” Pennsylvania, she must get 66% of its Pledged Delegates. A narrower popular vote victory is meaningless.

But, let’s start at the beginning. There have been erroneous perceptions about the state of the Democratic nominating process throughout. Here are just a few facts that may surprise you.

  • Barack has always led in Pledged Delegates, starting with Iowa. Sen. Clinton has trailed from day one; she has not led for even one day.
  • Barack won more delegates on Super Tuesday than she did, and Barack didn’t lose in New Hampshire, it was a tie.
  • as I’ve reminded us before, Barack won Texas.

The Rules

Remember that before this “baseball game” began, all of the “teams” agreed to a set of “rules” – just like in any game.

In this case, all sides agreed they would play to “score runs” (i.e., win Pledged Delegates) proportionately from a fixed and predetermined number available. Delegates were the only metric.

It was also agreed that a much smaller number of “unearned runs” could be awarded by the “owners” (Super Delegates) if they needed to intervene because something was awry – like one team was violating the rules.

All agreed to play 54 “innings” (states), with 2 innings (MI and FL) played as exhibitions only.

As a result, the total number of available runs – “earned” runs – (3,254 Pledged Delegates) plus “unearned runs” (795 Super Delegates) would be 4,049. In order to win, one team would have to score 2,025 runs, or slightly over half.

That number – 2,025 – is probably very familiar to most of you by now. That in itself is a telling number – because it has excluded, from the day the game began, the delegates from Michigan and Florida that could have been in play had those states abided by the rules. They didn’t. So, 2025 is the number.

Pledged Delegates Count

A “Delegate Count” table is included as an attachment. It contains a rich trove of data that illuminate the results of this nominating process. These are Obama campaign numbers; they differ only slightly from other sources. The table shows Barack with a 167 delegate lead. RealClearPolitics.com also puts his lead at 167, while CNN has him leading by 171.

The Delegate Count table shows why Barack is so far ahead and why Sen. Clinton has almost no chance of catching up.

I have also included as a second attachment a list of the remaining states, their dates and Pledge Delegate totals.

A careful examination of it will also show why the reporting of the process has been so misleading.

New Hampshire. Barack didn’t lose in New Hampshire, as reported. He tied. He and Sen. Clinton each got 9 delegates.

Nevada. Barack didn’t lose in Nevada, as reported. He won. He got 13 delegates to Sen. Clinton’s 12. So, Barack won 3 and tied 1 of the 4 “early states.”

Super Tuesday (Feb. 5). This was supposed to be Sen. Clinton’s big opportunity to end the game by the “slaughter rule.” She bet big on it. In simultaneous contests in 22 states, how could Barack Obama possibly overcome the namerecognition that the Clinton’s had built up over 15 years? But, Barack won again. I’ll bet you didn’t know that; I didn’t until I did the numbers. He earned 848 delegates to Sen. Clinton’s 833. Even more interesting, Barack “dominated” (my definition: got 60% of more of the delegates) in 9 of the 22 Super Tuesday states, while Sen. Clinton dominated in only 4, including American Samoa, getting 2 of its 3 delegates.

The Rest of February. Much has been reported about Barack winning 11 straight innings during the rest of February following Super Tuesday. The simple-minded have focused on winning discreet innings of a baseball game, which is irrelevant. In the process, they missed the real story – Barack dominated in 10 of those 11 innings, and narrowly missed dominating in the 11th, Wisconsin, winning 57% of its delegates. So he opened a big lead.

The Second “Super Tuesday” (March 4). Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont. For the first time, Sen. Clinton “won” a phase of the campaign, but by the thinnest of margins, 188 to 182.

Texas. Barack didn’t lose Texas. He won. He got 99 delegates to Sen. Clinton’s 94.

The Current Margin. After 44 innings, Barack leads in Pledged Delegates, 1415 to 1251, for a margin of 167.

Barack’s Virtually Insurmountable Lead. 44 of the 54 “innings” have now been played. There are only 569 Pledged Delegates available in the remaining 10 innings. Sen. Clinton would have to win over 66% of all theses delegates to draw even with Barack. But, she has reached the 66% mark only 1 time in the 44 previous “innings” – in Arkansas where she served as first lady for a long time.

Pennsylvania. It is critical for everyone to understand that “winning” the next inning in Pennsylvania requires that Sen. Clinton get over 66% of its Pledged Delegates. Unlikely as it is, even a popular vote total of 60%, for instance, would represent a loss for Sen. Clinton. The mountain she would have to climb in the then remaining 9 states would get even steeper – almost 69%. If she misses that mark in the next inning, the slope gets even steeper.

So, don’t let anyone tell you a popular vote total of anything less than 66% represents a “win” for Sen. Clinton in Pennsylvania. It won’t.

Super Delegates. We’ll talk more about Super Delegates at a late date.

For now, there is only one thing to be alert to on this score. If the Super Delegates ultimately decide to ignore Barack’s Pledged Delegate lead and hand the nomination to Sen. Clinton, we must all be crystal clear about what happened. They will have ignored the will of their own voters. It’s as simple as that.

No one should be confused, or diverted, by the endless babble about exit polls, big states, vague questions about “electability” or whatever. It’s all smoke. If this small handful of appointed party insiders decides to ignore the long and elaborate process the party
established to elect Pledged Delegates – the only election metric that was established at the beginning – after 16 months and over $400 million – then we should all be clear-eyed about what they have decided to do. They will have ignored the voters.

Please pass it on.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: Delegate Count


adobe pdf file Attachment: Remaining Innings

#24 Pick-Up and Personality

Hello Everyone,

Many of you have already been subjected to my stories about the background work I have done to determine if Barack is as special as he seems. So, I have some exciting, and entertaining, confirmatory evidence to share with you.

Soon after Penny and I first met Barack about five years ago, we asked him to lunch to get to now him better as he was preparing to run for the U.S. Senate. We left that lunch so impressed that we worried that he might be “too good to be true.” We hadn’t really been sold on any presidential candidate in nearly forty years. Was he the one?

True to my investment banking roots, I started to do “due diligence” on him by looking for people who have known Barack over the years. That has led me to three or four dozen people who have known him in different contexts, from law school classmates to federal judges to legislative colleagues to close personal friends. All of those contacts were consistent and confirming.

One seemingly simple indicator of character, personality and temperament that I uncovered has always stuck with me. As a long-time, and now former, basketball player, I know that you can tell a lot about a guy if you play a pick-up game with him. So, knowing that Barack likes to play, I set out to find some guys who have played with him.

I found four of them – three who started playing with him while they were all at Harvard (two at the Law School, one in Public Health) and one who first teamed up with him in Chicago. Two of them still play with Barack with some regularity; he especially likes to play on the morning of a primary.

What do they all say? He’s a team player, passes the ball, doesn’t hog it, isn’t a showboat, knows what he’s doing, isn’t a hot head, plays under control, etc. Sounds like the Barack we know, doesn’t it?

The essence of these small insights into this extraordinary man is that he is who he seems to be. A tiny testimony to his integrity.

And, now, thanks to HBO and YouTube, we can see and hear for ourselves. The following link will take you to a light hearted interview, replete with video clips. HBO Sportscaster Bryant Gumbel talks to Barack and shows clips of him playing in high school and more recently with some troops at Fort Bragg, N.C. Gumbel also asks Barack’s now brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, about “testing” him on a basketball court to see if he was fit to marry Craig’s sister. Barack obviously passed that test, too. (Craig, like Michelle, went to Princeton, was the head basketball coach at Brown University in the Ivy League, and is now moving to the same position at Oregon State in the Pac 10.)

This clip is as much fun as it is incisive. And, last time I checked, basketball is not considered an “elite” sport. Enjoy. http://youtube.com/watch?v=O1Lqm5emQl4

One final, more serious reminder – Barack’s lead in Pledged Delegates is almost impregnable. Sen. Clinton must carry Pennsylvania next Tuesday by 32 percentage points (66% – 34%) and carry each of the other nine remaining contests by that same margin in order to wind up with half of the Pledged Delegates by the end of the process. Even if she “wins” Pennsylvania by say 10 percentage points, she really loses.

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#25 Feeling Good – the Hill Just Got Steeper

Hello Everyone,

Senator Clinton needed to win in Pennsylvania by 32 points (66%-34%), but she didn’t come close. By winning the popular vote by only 10 points (55%-45%), she failed to dent Barack’s unassailable lead in elected delegates, the so-called Pledged Delegates.

As I anticipated in earlier Obamagrams, the incline of the huge hill that she must climb has just gotten steeper. The harsh reality is that she lost the race for Pledged Delegates weeks ago and can’t recover.

I’m amazed that so few commentators do the math or talk intelligently about it.

Here’s how it works (you can follow along in the attachment.) Before Pennsylvania, she trailed Barack by 171 Pledged Delegates. Therefore, she needed to win 66% of all of the then remaining 569 Pledged Delegates to have won half of all Pledged Delegates by the end of the primaries.

Since she fell so far short of that 66% mark in Pennsylvania, the bar has now been raised even higher. She has to win 71% of the now remaining 411 Pledged Delegates. She has never won that much of the popular vote in any state – including Arkansas.

It may get even worse for her in two weeks. There are more delegates (187) available in the combination of North Carolina and Indiana then there were in Pennsylvania (158). Even if she gets 3 of Guam’s 4 delegates on April 26 and, on May 6, wins Indiana by as much as 10 points and loses North Carolina by only 10 points, she will then hit the wall. (Yesterday, 29 North Carolina state legislators endorsed Barack.) She would need to win 196 of the 220 delegates available in the 6 then remaining contests in May and early June. That is, she would need to win 89% of those delegates. I don’t think so.

Therefore, the only way she can win the nomination is to convince the Super Delegates to ignore the collective will of the voters. I don’t think they dare do that.

One final note. As you’ve probably heard, the Clinton campaign is once again out of cash. Based on the latest available reports, its debts now exceed its cash on hand. Meanwhile, Barack is reported to have $41 million of net cash on hand. More reason to have faith in both Barack’s management acumen and broad-based, grass roots appeal.

So, keep in mind that Senator Clinton needs to win 71% of the vote (a 42 point margin) in each of the remaining nine contests. Whenever she fails to do that, in any contest, the hill gets even steeper.

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adobe pdf file Attachment: Delegate Math

#26 Capitulation

Hello Everyone,

Last night was even better than I had hoped for. He is now the Democratic nominee.

Barack’s 14 point win in North Carolina was bigger than I’d expected. And his 2 point loss in Indiana was smaller than I’d expected. Contrary to the impression left by the preelection media coverage, North Carolina is larger than Indiana (10th largest vs. 15th) and had nearly 40% more delegates to award.

As a result, Sen. Clinton has run out of rope.

We have said from the beginning that this process is all about Pledged (or Elected) Delegates. Only 6 contests, with a total of 217 delegates, remain. Sen. Clinton would have to win 94% of those Pledged Delegates to achieve a majority of elected delegates. Obviously, that won’t happen.

There has been an over-abundance of chatter claiming “the Super (or Appointed) Delegates will decide the outcome.” Well, 2/3 of the 795 Super Delegates have already declared their intentions. Only 1/3, or 260, of them now remain undeclared.

As a result, there are 477 total delegates (both Pledged and Super) that remain in play. Sen. Clinton now needs to win 68% of them to achieve a majority of all delegates. That won’t happen either.

This “baseball” game is over. Senator Clinton may try to extend it by two “innings,” contrary to the rules she originally agreed to. I doubt that will happen.

The media has started to capitulate, even though that is not in its self-interest. The only questions that remain for me are: Will Sen. Clinton follow Gov. Huckabee’s lead, and stay in the game for awhile, but play nice? Or, will she choose to exit with less grace? Time will tell.

In the meantime, keep the numbers 94% and 68% in your heads.

Yes, we can!

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#27 Blowouts, Baseball, and Ronald Reagan

Hello Everyone,

Over the past seventeen months, I have written a number of Obamagrams, including ones entitled “Baseball Rules” and “Runs Scored,” using a baseball metaphor to explain the primary process. I have cautioned about changing the rules late in the game. And, I have likened Barack Obama to Ronald Reagan.

I want to share some fun news with you on all those fronts, but before I do, let me tell you why West Virginia should be no source of anxiety.


In anticipation of a lopsided loss in West Virginia tonight, it is important to remember how many times Barack has won in a blowout. So far, he has won 21 contests by 20 points or more, while Sen. Clinton won only 1 contest (Arkansas) and possibly a second (Oklahoma) by that margin. Obviously, that’s why Barack has already won the nomination.

The news media has never pointed this out, of course, so they will all be in a tizzy tonight. If they were doing their jobs, they would provide this additional context for their audiences:

a) West Virginia is only the 37th largest state in the union, so has few delegates, and
b) Eleven of Barack’s 21 blowouts were in states that are larger than West Virginia, so they had more delegates.

Keep in mind that Barack only needs to win 25% of the Pledged Delegates in the next three contests (WV, OR and KY) to achieve a majority of such elected delegates and rightly claim victory.


Last week, it was good fun to see the unlikely combination of the presumptive Democratic nominee and the conservative Republican columnist, George Will, talking baseball.

Barack told Brian Williams of NBC that May 20 (OR and KY) “… will be an important day. If at that point we have the majority of pledged delegates, which is possible, then I think we can make a pretty strong claim that we’ve got the most runs and it’s the ninth inning and we’ve won.”

George Will followed with a column using a more elaborated baseball metaphor. (He wrote the best-seller Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball.) Tongue firmly planted in cheek, he echoed my warning that the Clintons, realizing they have no legitimate way to win, would try to change the rules – “pesky nuisances” as Will called them – late in the game.

Hillary Clinton, 60, Illinois native and Arkansas lawyer, became, retroactively, a lifelong Yankee fan at age 52 when, shopping for a U.S. Senate seat, she adopted New York state as home sweet home…

…After Tuesday’s split decisions in Indiana and North Carolina, Clinton, the Yankee Clipperette, can, and hence eventually will, creatively argue that she is really ahead of Barack Obama, or at any rate she is sort of tied, mathematically or morally or something, in popular votes, or delegates, or some combination of the two, as determined by Fermat’s Last Theorem, or something, in states whose names begin with vowels, or maybe consonants, or perhaps some mixture of the two as determined by listening to a recording of the Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda” played backward, or whatever other formula is most helpful to her, and counting the votes she received in Michigan, where hers was the only contending name on the ballot (her chief rivals, quaintly obeying their party’s rules, boycotted the state, which had violated the party’s rules for scheduling primaries), and counting the votes she received in Florida, which, like Michigan, was a scofflaw and where no one campaigned, and dividing Obama’s delegate advantage in caucus states by pi multiplied by the square root of Yankee Stadium’s ZIP code.

Or perhaps she wins if Obama’s popular vote total is, well, adjusted by counting each African-American vote as only three-fifths of a vote. There is precedent, of sorts, for that arithmetic (see the Constitution, Article, I, Section 2, before the 14th Amendment).


Extending the fun, George Will ended that same column with a reference to Ronald Reagan. Some of you may recall that I have written that Barack reminds me of some combination of JFK, RFK and Reagan. Remember, too, that Barack was chastised for even suggesting that Reagan was an important president. So, conservative columnist Will wrote “…McCain’s problem might turn out to be that the fact that Obama is the Democrats’ Reagan. Obama’s rhetorical cotton candy lacks Reagan’s ideological nourishment, but he is Reaganesque in two important senses: people like listening to him, and his manner lulls his adversaries into underestimating his sheer toughness – the tempered steel beneath the sleek suits.” I would add that Reagan was and Barack is an optimist, and McCain is not. And, as someone else observed, optimists are the ones who bring about change.

Coming full circle, it is also fitting that Reagan’s first job out of college was announcing baseball games – for the Chicago Cubs.

Now, on to the real fun of the general election.

As always, please pass it on.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: Delegate Count

#28 Reflections on a Milestone

Hello Everyone,

On this morning after a milestone – when Barack went over the top in delegates and rightfully claimed the Democratic presidential nomination — it seems fitting to offer a brief coda.

It feels really good that the world now knows what I have suspected for 2 years and known for 3 ½ months – that Barack would win the nomination.

Using my now well-worn baseball metaphor, on March 18, I wrote to many of you: “Barack’s lead in Pledged Delegates is virtually insurmountable at 167. This lead is the most important single factor to focus on. Sen. Clinton would have to score more than 66% of the available runs in each of the remaining 9 innings [of this 54 inning game] to catch Barack in Pledged Delegates. [She ultimately got there in only 2 of the 9.] Even if the owners [Super Delegates] decide to replay the two exhibition innings (MI and FL), she would have to score over 60% of the runs in each of the then remaining 11 innings. She has reached the 60% mark [in Pledged Delegates] only 4 times [and only 2 times in popular vote] in the 45 innings played so far. Barack has reached that mark 21 times – in many cases exceeding it by wide margins. That’s why his lead is so large. Forget who “wins” Pennsylvania or any other inning. The only thing that matters is Barack’s lead, and whether it increases or decreases and by how many runs. It is highly unlikely that Sen. Clinton can overcome Barack’s big lead. So, that’s why she is trying to change the rules.”

Barack has won the nomination because his unique and extraordinary combination of personal qualities matches so well the needs and tenor of the times. He also won because he knew the rules of this “baseball” game. That it was 54 innings long and that the only thing that mattered was the cumulative number of runs scored.

The real — and as yet untold – story of this campaign is this. From day one, Barack has never trailed in Pledged Delegates. He planned to play all the innings, not just the early ones. And, here’s the deeper insight – he dominated so many innings in the early and middle parts of the game that his opponent simply couldn’t catch up in the later ones.

Much attention has been paid to the handful of “blowouts” Sen. Clinton recorded in the waning innings – most notably in West Virginia. (Blowouts, by my definition, are popular vote wins by 20 points or more.) Sen. Clinton had 5 such wins, but 3 were in the last 6 innings. But, to my knowledge, no one noticed, much less reported on, the 21 blowout innings that Barack won, swamping her 5. Starting in South Carolina, on January 26. Continuing on Super Tuesday (Feb. 5), when Sen. Clinton counted on delivering the much-anticipated knockout. It didn’t happen. Not only did Barack win more Pledged Delegates than she did that day, he recorded 8 blowouts to her 2.

Then, as everyone knows, Barack won the next 11 innings in a row. What no one noticed was that he won more than 60% of the delegates in 10 of those 11 contests and won the popular vote by more than 20 points (a blowout) in 8 of those 11 innings.

So, despite all the media blabber, this game was over on Feb. 19 – about 3 ½ months ago. Before Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania, much less tiny West Virginia.

It was only after Barack’s 11th straight winning inning that the other side woke up to their fate and started to argue that the rules of the game should be changed. That big states or primary not caucus states or hard working uneducated white male voters should somehow
count rather than what the game was all about – delegates.

Their last gasp was the “popular vote” argument. Suffice it to say, there is no plausible argument for counting Michigan’s and Florida’s popular votes, even though Barack graciously engineered a compromise on their delegates. Nor should certain caucus states be excluded. Playing by the rules, Barack won the popular vote. No matter how many times and how loudly the other side asserts otherwise. And, as we just witnessed, it doesn’t matter. It has never mattered. Remember the title of my January 21st Obamagram, “Delegates Matter,” in which I pointed out that delegates were the sole metric in this nominating process.

It is a day to savor – and one of those singular days that many of us will long remember.

But, we must not inhale too much champagne in the clubhouse. This was only the League Championship Series.

Now, it’s on to the World Series. More on that next time.

For those of you who have been believers, thank you for your unflagging support. For those as yet unconverted, we hope you will now join our movement.

Please pass it on, as always.


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#29 Flak From All Sides

Hello Everyone,

Some of you may have noticed – many no doubt have been relieved – that I have not written since Barack became the presumptive Democratic nominee. Some of you may also recall from my earliest musings about a year and a half ago, I am not a political professional or party activist. I remind you that the last time I was deeply committed to a candidate was during Bobby Kennedy’s quest nearly forty years ago – an effort that sadly lasted less than three months.

All to say, I hope the occasional observations I now begin to offer about this final phase of the election process will be somewhat interesting and perhaps even useful despite my amateur status. I embark on this next stage, much like I did the first, primarily for my
own need to understand and secondarily to share whatever thoughts I have with you for any value they may have. But, I ask forgiveness from the start for my mistakes and whatever naiveté or outright foolishness I display in the process. I’m no professional pundit.

It has taken some time for me to acclimate to this “general” election phase. It seems like the media is still having trouble, so I’m not alone.

Many of my ideas during this phase will be informed by a careful re-reading of Barack’s two books and his many speeches, including his anti-Iraq war speech in 2002 and his seminal keynote address at the 2004 convention. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s important book on Lincoln, Team of Rivals, will also offer instructive parallels to the current situation.

As the New York Times noticed recently, Barack “caught heavy flak from all sides” when he rejected public financing for his presidential campaign. We know that he has been taking flak from all sides on numerous other issues as well.

Contrary to popular opinion, I think that is a very good sign, not a cause for concern.

A week ago Barack said, “…people…apparently haven’t been listening to me.” Gail Collins of the Times weighed in the following day, “When an extremely intelligent politician tells you over and over and over that he is tired of the take-no-prisoners politics of the last several decades, that he is going to get things done and build a ‘new consensus,’ he is trying to explain that he is all about compromise. Even if he says it in that great Baracky way.”

Reading Goodwin on Lincoln is illuminating here. A true picture of him is hard to conjure since we have been dazzled by Lincoln’s legacy for so long. It is appropriate that Goodwin reminds us that, first and foremost, Lincoln was a superb politician – a skilled politician, not some bumpkin log-splitter from Illinois.

Lincoln won the Republican nomination in a tight race on the third ballot at the 1860 convention in Chicago; there were no primaries in those days. Goodwin writes that he won with “fewer privileges” and less experience than his three principal rivals. Coincidentally, the leading contender among them was William Seward, a sitting senator from New York and previously its governor.

“The news that Lincoln had defeated Seward came as a shock… Since people were unaware of the skill with which he had crafted his victory, Lincoln was viewed as merely the accidental candidate…” It’s fitting that even his name caused confusion: “Still an obscure figure, he was referred to by half the journals… as ‘Abram’ rather than ‘Abraham.’”

“Chance, positioning, and managerial strategy – all played a role in Lincoln’s victory,” Goodwin writes. “From beginning to end, he took the greatest control of the process leading up to the nomination.”

Looking back a hundred and fifty years, many want to romanticize Lincoln, imagining “Honest Abe,” the guileless rube from the frontier who miraculously and unexpectedly arrived on the scene just in time to save the Union. In fact, he was a deeply-gifted politician with a “profound and elevated sense of ambition,” according to another historian.

In my humble opinion, it is time for us to recognize that Barack Obama is also a politician. A world class politician. Possibly the best politician of the last half century, if not longer.

His nomination was not an immaculate conception. He’s no innocent. And, thank God for that.

We can fantasize about Barack being “apolitical,” “post-political,” “post-partisan” or what have you. The fact is that he is a masterful politician. He proved that in the primaries, defeating more “privileged” rivals.

But, “politician” doesn’t need to be the pejorative we have come to assume. John F. Kennedy, himself an accomplished politician, once said, “Mothers may…want their favorite sons to grow up to be president, but….they do not want them to become politicians in the process.”

We need not only to get over the fact that Barack is a politician, but rejoice in it. Only those skilled in shaping public opinion and searching for the possible, will accomplish anything worthwhile while in office.

My best hope – and highest confidence – is that Barack will restore luster to his profession, perhaps even reminding us in the process of our most esteemed politicians, the Founding Fathers.

Barack Obama is a much more practical and pragmatic figure than many perceive him to be. Or, perhaps, want him to be. He’s not an ideologue or stubborn. We’ve had enough of that kind.

It is useful to remember that Lincoln did not campaign as an abolitionist, regardless of the caricature that has been crafted with the passing of time. During the campaign of 1860, Lincoln took such a pragmatic stance with respect to slavery that is shocking to read
today – even more so in light of our present circumstance. He said, “I am not pledged to the ultimate extinction of slavery; (do) not hold that the black man is to be the equal of the white…” Lincoln was merely opposed to the extension of slavery into the new territories, not its abolition in the states and territories where it already existed, and was not advocating racial equality.

Similarly, Barack said in his now famous, but seldom read, speech opposing the Iraq war in 2002 (it’s on barackobama.com) that he was “not opposed to war in all circumstances… What I am opposed to is a dumb war… a rash war… Let’s finish the fight with Bin Laden and Al Qaeda [in Afghanistan.”]

Likewise, in the 2004 convention speech which introduced him to the nation, Barack took a decidedly inclusive stance, “… there is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s a United States of America…pundits like to slice and dice our country into Red States and Blue States… but I’ve got news for them… We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States.” He is all about inclusion, consensus and compromise.

As Kermit the Frog famously lamented, “It isn’t easy being green.” It isn’t easy to be a “purple” politician in the twenty-first century either. You get “flak from all sides.” It causes purple bruises. But bruises needn’t last long.

So, two ideas for all of us to keep in mind over the next 3 1/2 bruising months. Barack Obama has long presented himself as a practical and pragmatic politician. Not an ideologue. Progressive, but not predictably left or right. Not Blue or Red.

We might keep this in mind as we react to his positions on parental responsibility, the death penalty, wiretap laws, church-sponsored social service programs, and a myriad of other issues. I’m sure he will even take flak from some quarters due to his decision to visit the Palestinian territories on his trip to the Middle East next week.

He’s not flip flopping. He’s being true to what he’s promised over the half dozen years I’ve known him, read him and listened to him. He’s being true to what he wrote thirteen years ago in his first book. When one end of the spectrum or the other stops whining, then we’ll all know that Barack has really flipped. Don’t expect that to happen.

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#30 What Do We Really Know about John McCain?

Hello Everyone,

Barack’s just-concluded overseas trip was revealing in several ways in addition to the
obvious ones.

He certainly did look presidential, completely capable of holding a series of rapid-fire
meetings with heads of state in a wide array of settings. Extraordinarily impressive.

Upon his return, Barack was greeted with an insightful column by Bob Herbert in which
he wrote, “The conventional wisdom in this radically unconventional presidential race is
that the voters have to get to know Barack Obama better…Maybe so. But what about the
other guy? How much do we really know about John McCain?” (See attachment.)

While Barack was away, we learned a little more about Sen. McCain – about the quality
of his thinking and the nature of his temperament.


Touted as highly experienced in foreign affairs, we began to see that Sen. McCain
basically thinks as a militarist, not a statesman or a diplomat. By dint of his training
(Naval Academy – where, by the way, he graduated 5th from the bottom of his class –
790th out of 795), experience (Vietnam P.O.W.) and genealogy (son and grandson of
admirals), military solutions appear to dominate his approach to international relations.
Witness his apparent inability to comprehend the complexities of Iraq. He evidently
can’t see that Iraq has not been a conventional, bi-lateral war ever since Hussein’s army
was quickly dispatched. That there won’t, and can’t, be any clear “winner” in what we
mistakenly continue to call the “Iraq War.”

Last week, Sen. McCain seemed to have difficulty understanding that the currently less
violent conditions in Iraq are probably the result of multiple factors, including, but not
limited to, increasing U.S. troop levels – as well Sunnis confronting insurgents, and
Sadr’s army disengaging, the latter perhaps in part due to moves made by the Maliki
government. Historians will probably discover additional factors with the passage of

All week, Sen. McCain persisted in claiming that the improved conditions were simply a
product of the military “surge.” He seems to be stuck in a largely military mindset.
That’s one thing we seem to be learning about Sen. McCain.

Contrast this with the complicated, nuanced thinking that Barack displayed even before
he became a national, or international, figure. In his October 2002 speech opposing the
invasion of Iraq, he said “I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a
U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined
consequences…Let us send a clear message to the president today. Let’s finish the fight
with Bin Laden and al-Qaeda [in Afghanistan.]”

A couple of weeks later, Barack was interviewed about that speech. With uncanny
prescience, he asked, “…How do we …make sure that this country doesn’t splinter into
factions between the Shia and the Kurds and the Sunnis?”

The world now believes invading Iraq was a mistake and Afghanistan should be our
focus. The Maliki government wants a 2010 timetable, and we are talking to Iran. All
positions Barack has long held.

Last December, the conservative commentator David Brooks wrote about Barack’s
unusual political prowess. “Obama…has powers of observation that may mitigate his
own inexperience and the isolating pressures of the White house. In his famous essay,
‘On Political Judgment,’ Isaiah Berlin writes that wise leaders don’t think abstractly.
They use powers of close observation to integrate the vast shifting amalgam of data that
constitute their own particular situation… [Brooks continued] Obama demonstrated those
powers in Dreams From My Father.”

The comparison between the two candidates as recently as last week was striking. A
warrior’s mind seemingly unable to “use powers of close observation to integrate the vast
shifting amalgam of data” contrasted with a wise mind which can deal with complication.

Sen. McCain finished near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy, while Barack
was president of the Law Review at Harvard, was offered tenure during his 12-year
teaching career at the University of Chicago Law School where, according to the New
York Times
, “…as a professor, students say, Mr. Obama was in the business of
complication…” Quite a contrast. See today’s article in the Times about Barack’s teaching at the University of Chicago.


Sen. McCain’s performance last week also seemed instructive about a second, and no less
important, characteristic of the man. His temperament. Or simply, his temper.

Herbert writes, “Part of the makeup of the man – apparently a significant part, according
to many close observers – is his outsized temper. Mr. McCain’s temperament has long
been a subject of fascination in Washington, and for some a matter of concern. He can be
a nasty piece of work… If the McCain gaffes seem endless, so do the tales about his
angry, profanity-laced eruptions.” Herbert goes on to quote two sitting Republican
senators who attest to these concerns. Then he continues, “Sen. McCain has
acknowledged on various occasions that he has a short fuse.”

Barack himself was the target of McCain’s public ire in 2006 when the Senate was
considering ethics reform.

We evidently got the first glimpse during this campaign of the mean-spirited Sen.
McCain last week. One commentator observed that while Barack was being
“presidential”, Sen. McCain was being “petty.”

Sen. McCain’s week-long temper tantrum reached its apex when he charged that Obama
would “lose a war in order to win a campaign.” While Barack was overseas, the
headlines endlessly characterized Sen. McCain as “ripping”, “slamming”, “hitting hard”,
and otherwise throwing a fit at Obama. Sen. McCain came off as nasty, frustrated and

Upon witnessing this display, I asked someone involved in the process what to make of
it. I was surprised to learn that this person had experienced Sen. McCain’s temper first
hand and said it was, indeed, something to behold.

I can understand Sen. McCain’s frustration from being on the losing end of Iraqi
timetables, Iranian talks, and surging in Afghanistan amid a rival’s warm international
reception. All in about one week. As we all know, pent up frustration usually exposes a
person’s true colors. Has this process begun for Sen. McCain?

The true nature of Sen. McCain’s temperament may have started to come into fuller view
recently for another reason – the ascendency of “Sgt. Schmidt.” That is Sen. McCain’s
nickname for Steve Schmidt who he recently drafted to take over his campaign (his third
campaign chief; Barack has had only one.) According to the Wall Street Journal,
Schmidt is a sharp-tongued strategist and former aide to Vice President Cheney. “His
formula: a tightly controlled message delivered repeatedly and with almost military-like
precision.” One colleague on a previous campaign complained, “At some point you felt
like how many times can you say the same thing?” Watch carefully how ultra-repetitive
Sen. McCain is now becoming.

More to the point, the Journal continues, “Schmidt was also known for his sometimes
explosive temper… [something he] admits [to] in the heat of battle.” Other descriptors of
that temper: “volcanic” and “red-faced.”

So, I suspect that Sgt. Schmidt has been stirring up Sen. McCain’s innate anger rather
than leavening it.

As a result of these revelations, I would venture to say that Sen. McCain’s temperament
may prove his undoing in this campaign. If his second – and last, given his age – real
bite at the presidential apple continues to slip away, I suspect that his ever-rising
frustration level may further expose his inability to control his temper. We’ll see.

Now contrast Barack’s temperament with Sen. McCain’s. Cool, composed, eventempered,
poised. Everything I’ve learned about him in the five or so years I’ve known
him – and dozens of his family, friends and associates – confirms the public perception of
a man who has a high level of emotional intelligence. He is cool, not just stylistically,
but constitutionally.

Once again, Brooks’ insights last December are enlightening. “Obama is an innerdirected
man in a profession filled with insecure outer-directed ones…He has a core and
is able to maintain his equipoise…Obama does not ratchet up hostilities; he restrains
them. He does not lash out at perceived enemies, but is aloof from them. In the course of
his struggle to discover who he is, Obama clearly learned from the strain of pessimistic
optimism that stretches back from Martin Luther King Jr. to Abraham Lincoln. This is a
worldview that detests anger as a motivating force…Obama did not respond to his
fatherlessness or his racial predicament with anger and rage, but as questions for
investigation, conversation and synthesis. He approaches politics the same way…He still
retains the capacity, also rare in presidents, of being able to sympathize with and grasp
the motivations of his rivals. Even in his political memoir, The Audacity of Hope, he
astutely observes that candidates are driven less by the desire for victory than by the raw
fear of loss and humiliation.”

In Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin quotes the old Chicago Press and Tribune
observing that Lincoln had an “equable nature and … [a] mental constitution that is never
off its balance.”

Barack demonstrated many of his habits of mind and character traits once again on last
week’s international trip, which, unwittingly and simultaneously, may have offered us an
opportunity to learn more about Sen. McCain’s.

In the end, I think voters will opt for a supple mind and a cool head over a military mind
and a hot temper. We’ll see as we really get to know John McCain.

Please pass it on.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: Getting to Know You

#31 My First Convention

Hello Everyone,

I am attending my first, and probably only, political convention. I’m here because of my once-every-forty-years enthusiasm for a candidate (remember, Bobby was the last one). I also bring an amateur anthropologist’s curiosity to this most curious of clan gatherings.

This will be brief as I am pecking it out on my beloved BlackBerry.

Last night, sitting on the convention floor among the Illinois delegation, I was impressed by the manic atmosphere. One of the many roving reporters (I was actually interviewed and photographed by the Christian Science Monitor) who was a veteran convention-goer told me that the high level of enthusiasm at this convention was distinctly different from what she had previously experienced.

So far, I have found the delegates to be surprisingly ordinary people thrust into a frenzied, exhausting situation surrounded by security of Olympian proportions. Each night I have wondered how the fire marshal has allowed so many people to be packed in to what is a now-common modern basketball arena. Thank God for the ability to escape to a skybox as a member of the National Finance Committee.

Yesterday morning, I attended one of the endless panels offering opinions about the proceedings. This one turned out to be refreshingly useful. The panelists actually said more than once that they “didn’t know” the answer to a question. Amazing.

They offered a couple of particularly useful insights. Despite what the mass reporting will lead us to expect, there will be no way to discern a polling “bounce”, or lack thereof, from this convention because the Republican convention begins, contrary to custom, immediately on its heels. It won’t be until the dust settles in mid-September that the national polls (which are pretty useless anyway) are affected by what happened here.

They also made another great point: the mass media are so anxiously, and selfinterestedly, anticipating a Clinton car crash here that they are missing the real, but much more boring, story – the one about the ground game that the Obama campaign is quietly putting in place. That ground game is greatly, and positively, impacted by two factors — supporter enthusiasm and cash. I expect that we will continue to have both in abundance. I also expect that Barack’s ground operations in an historically-large number of states – possibly nearly double the number that Kerry was in – will be a decisive factor in the general election — much like they were in the primary, much to the surprise of the mass media.

The media coverage of this causes me to return to the baseball analogy I used throughout the primary. We almost never see singles in game highlights on TV – only homeruns or hit batters rushing the pitcher’s mound. But, most games are won by manufacturing runs one boring hit at a time. The ground game.

The panel also asked the question — who is more divided, the Democrats or the Republicans? Very good question. Also, whatever happened to all of the talk about Sen. Clinton being a controversial candidate with unusually high negatives?

As I was leaving that briefing, I ran in to David Brooks, who I last met with at his 25th reunion at the University of Chicago a few weeks ago. Coincidentally, he had made some customarily perceptive observations in his column yesterday morning (see attachment). He reminded us that about a year ago Barack was stagnant in the polls (I think he was actually trailing badly) and he got all sorts of unsolicited advice from his nervous supporters and assorted experts. I remember writing in an Obamagram to cool it; that he would be fine. David offers the same advice: to ignore the anxious advice of the “experts” in his party and be himself. I am, once again, confident in Barack’s judgment, that he will be as smart in the general as he was in the primary. I expect a very good outcome in this election.

From just one observer’s point of view, I think the highlights of this convention so far have been — in sequential order — the Kennedys, Michelle Obama, Gov. Schweitzer, and Sen. Clinton.

Michelle was flawless and tremendously appealing in vouching for Barack as a family man with all-American values.

Schweitzer, who I had never heard of, was the real keynote speaker, not Gov. Warner, in my opinion. He gave the most rousing speech so far. Just fabulous.

The most memorable characterizations of Sen. McCain from last night:

  • “The Minnesota Twins: Bush and McCain” (my slightly-revised version, alluding to the site of the Republican convention next week.)
  • Sen. McCain is a “Sidekick, not a Maverick” given that he has voted with Bush 95% of the time.
  • “McCain’s more of the same” or, better yet, “McCain’s the Same.”

Well, my thumbs are tired, so that’s enough from Denver for now. My wife, Penny, arrives today for the final two nights. This should continue to be fun, and instructive, watching the natives in their habitat.

As always, please “pass it along”.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: The 21st-Century Man

#32 The Ground Game and Due Diligence

Hello Everyone,

We returned on Friday from the Democratic convention. It was a memorable and energizing experience. Thursday night was, in fact, magical.

Misplaced Media Focus

In the process, I was reminded of how misplaced the media’s focus can be. We all remember, and I wrote about during the primaries, that many in the media obsessed about winning “innings” (states) not “scoring runs” (pledged delegates) missing the central point. They also failed to tell us that it was essentially over on February 19th, not June 3rd. They most likely wanted to maintain our attention.

The convention coverage was “more of the same,” to use a current phrase. Much ado about how the Clintons would stoke the fires of party disunity which would become evident during a raucous and “cathartic” roll call vote.

As it turned out, that vote occurred ever-so-quietly on Wednesday afternoon. Due to a last minute meeting that Penny and I had with the New Zealand Ambassador and his political officer, we were slightly late getting to the hall and, unbeknownst to us, we missed the vote.

We sat through hours of speeches on Wednesday night and Thursday and talked with dozens of fellow convention-goers without ever realizing that the vote had taken place – and no one brought it up. It was such a non-event that I had to find a newspaper on Friday morning, the day after Barack’s acceptance speech, to read about what had happened.

This was just another example of the public’s, and the media’s, thirst for drama. As one observer said recently, most people go to Nascar races to see the crashes.

I anticipate that this phenomenon will persist through the general election. Switching to a football metaphor since it is almost fall, I think the real story in this election will be about the vast superiority of Barack’s “ground game.” I predict the media will have little to say about it. Too boring.

Ground Game

As the legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes knew, “3 yards and a cloud of dust” may be boring, but it certainly wins football games.

Employing the same community-organizing and social-networking skills they used to prevail in the primaries and caucuses, the Obama campaign once again has a vastlysuperior ground game. Barack has 2,400 people on his payroll, the great majority of whom are in field offices. He has more offices in Pennsylvania (60), and as many offices in Ohio (50) as Sen. McCain has nationwide (50.)

These field offices are supported by targeted, state-by-state advertising and a huge number of unpaid volunteers. (One headquarters staffer, an Amherst alumna, is bunking down in our coach house for the duration.)

All of this is made possible by Barack’s substantial advantages in fundraising and supporter enthusiasm – which are, obviously, mutually-reinforcing. (Sarah Palin’s selection seems to have increased enthusiasm among the Republican “base”, but only time will tell if this Hail Mary pass results in a completion, an incomplete pass, or an interception, perhaps returned for a TD. Only time will tell if the enthusiasm spreads beyond the already converted.)

Why is the boring ground game so critical? To register voters, convince voters and get out the vote. All of that sounds obvious. But, let me illustrate the potential of all of this. Sen. Kerry lost Florida by about 380,000 votes in 2004. This year could be very different. In that election, 500,000 registered African-Americans in Florida did not vote. In that election, 900,000 registered voters under 40 in Florida did not vote (obviously, there is an overlap between these two groups.) Need I say more?

And, do not underestimate the power of enthusiasm or intensity. In some ways, our democratic system is not really based on “one person, one vote.” We actually have a “passion-weighted” system. Those who really care about an issue or a candidate work extra hard and turn out to vote. Think of the NRA.

Of course, the ground game is boring. Like singles in baseball games that seldom make the highlight shows.

Wasilla and Alaska

I don’t plan to comment much on Sarah Palin until we know more. I agree that her gender and family life are not directly relevant. But, a few observations are fun and may even be somewhat instructive.

We know by now that she was a city councilwoman for 4 years and mayor for 6 years. But, did we realize how tiny a town Wasilla really is? Its population was less than 5,000 when she was first elected mayor in 1996. That is far less than 1/10th the size of Evanston, the Chicago suburb in which I live. When Sarah Palin was re-elected in 1999, she received 826 votes. Total. That is about as many votes as I received when I was elected student council president of Shaker High School, a suburb of Albany, New York.

Some are now fond of calling Alaska “the largest state in the union.” True, in terms of gross (not even habitable) land mass. But, it has a population of less than 700,000. That’s somewhere between the population of Charlotte and Milwaukee and less than ¼ the size of Chicago.

Alaska is the least densely populated state in the union and has virtually no African- Americans or Latinos. Due in large measure to oil revenues, it enjoys budget surpluses. It was admitted as a state in 1959, twenty-three years after John McCain was born – and the year I was elected student council president.


I may not know much about politics, but I do know something about investment banking (although some of my colleagues might dispute that) having practiced for 34 years.

Investment bankers are always looking to start new corporate relationships. Over the years, I learned many lessons, some of which turned into personal “rules.” One was my “3 meeting” rule: when calling on a CEO or CFO you don’t know, expect it to take 3 meetings before he or she even remembers your name.

Reports are that Sen. McCain met with Sarah Palin precisely 2 times before he announced her selection. So far he’s doing well to remember her name.

Due Diligence

Investment bankers also do what in the trade is called “due diligence” before agreeing to represent a company. This takes times, too. You will recall from earlier Obamagrams, that I intentionally did my own due diligence on Barack after I first met him over 5 years
ago. I now know 3 to 4 dozen people who have known Barack in some aspect of his adult life. The reports are all consistent. He is who he portrays himself to be.

As I told the Christian Science Monitor in a brief interview on the convention floor, which was published last Thursday, Barack is exceptional in “intellect, temperament and worldview.” That is what a couple of years of due diligence has confirmed.

Last night, Sarah Palin gave a confident – some might say cocky and combative – speech, filled with mockery, that was well-received by Republican convention-goers. It is clearer now why Sen. McCain picked her – she’s so much like him. More of the same. It is unclear what she brings to the central issues of this campaign – the economy, healthcare, and the war. She does seem to know something about oil.

Remember the old line “It’s the economy, stupid?”

One commentator reminded us last night that Sen. McCain locked up the nomination on March 4th – a full 6 months ago. He wondered why Sen. McCain waited until the last 48 hours to first interview his V.P. pick.

We will find out in the next 2 months if Sen. McCain’s impulses are an adequate substitute for careful and extended due diligence. And, what that tells us about his temperament and judgment.

One thing we know for sure, most of the media will continue to dwell on the drama and ignore the ground game. I suspect, however, that they are good at due diligence.

Please pass it on.


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#33 The Make-Believe Maverick(s)

Hello Everyone,

As many of you know, I have been closely observing this presidential campaign from its beginning 19 months ago and, as a novice, written regularly on what I see.

Here’s my latest observation: questionable assertions that are repeated and go unchallenged are taken as truths. Think the “Swift-boating” of John Kerry (I wasn’t paying close attention then).

A corollary seems to be: assertions which are taken as truths are seldom revised based upon new evidence.

These surely come as no surprise to students of propaganda techniques – or, perhaps, of American political campaigns.

How do these two observations apply to the current campaign? It seems simple to me now.

Sen. McCain has morphed into a “Make-Believe Maverick” – pretending to be a real maverick to distract voters from the fact that he is a REPUBLICAN. Frank Rich has it right.

Maverick has simply become his code word for “Un-Republican.” Like the Un-Cola. It’s marvelous to witness the contortions the man is putting himself through. He’s simultaneously attempting to run as an Un-Republican while trying to energize his very- Republican base. Sixty days is a long time for even the best contortionist to hold a pose.

Let me digress for a moment.

As a first-time observer, I stumbled across the “questionable assertion” phenomenon during the Democratic nominating process earlier this year. It was innocent and unintended, not devious and sinister, but alerted me to the problem nonetheless.

It occurred as part of the reporting of the Democratic contest in Texas in March. You may recall that the unique Texas “two-step” involved both a primary and caucuses on the same day. As usual, the primary vote was “called” shortly after the polls closed. All of the media immediately reported that Sen. Clinton had “won” Texas. The results from the caucuses – which Barack won handily – were not available for a few days. When everything was said and done, Barack actually won Texas. He got 99 pledged delegates to 94 for Sen. Clinton. So, he won Texas according to the party’s rules.

Yet, to this day, the conventional wisdom continues to be that Sen. Clinton won Texas. Incredibly, for weeks even the Obama website reported it incorrectly.

Before I get to the central reason I’m penning this piece, let’s consider why this “questionable assertion” phenomenon occurs.

I think there are at least two reasons. First, observers frequently fail to “look it up,” a favorite exhortation of a long-time colleague of mine. That is, they don’t go back to primary source documents or other credible evidence to check on the facts.

In the electronic media, there seem to be only two programs that practice the dictum to “look it up.” Meet the Press has a set itself apart for decades because of its adherence to this discipline. It comes as a surprise to people of my generation that The Daily Show with John Stewart is now the other one. He looks it up, too. I commend it to you; there are serious insights embedded in all the silliness.

Secondly, psychology comes into play. As Robert Cialdini writes in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, all of us (yours truly included) fall into the “commitment and consistency” trap. That is, once we have taken a public stand (“John McCain is a
straight-talking maverick”) it becomes a commitment. We will insist on maintaining and defending that position despite subsequent evidence to the contrary. We have a deep need to appear consistent, to ourselves and others. The narrative is set in cement.

Which brings me back to my main point.

Although Sen. McCain has been a maverick in some ways in the past – meaning that he has, from time to time, stood in fundamental opposition to the Republican Party – he does no longer. He is now simply trying to use this device to distract voters from the fact that he is every bit as much a Republican as Pres. Bush and V.P. Cheney.

To confirm that we need to look no further than the “two inevitables” – “death and taxes.” In this case, sadly, “war and taxes.”

The $3 trillion Iraq War is every bit as much Sen. McCain’s war as it is Pres. Bush’s.

According to the New York Times, Sen. McCain impulsively contemplated war with Iraq immediately after 9/11 – perhaps even before President Bush did. And Sen. McCain sold it aggressively to the American people.

“Within a month [of 9/11] he made clear his priority. ‘Very obviously Iraq is the first country,’ he declared on CNN. By Jan. 2, [2002], Mr. McCain was on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, yelling to a crowd of sailors and airmen: ‘Next up, Baghdad!’”
(See attachment.)

Congress did not pass the Iraq War Resolution until 9 months later, in October 2002.

The $3 trillion estimate comes from my Amherst classmate, Nobel-Prize-winning economist, Joe Stiglitz, in his recent book.

Sen. McCain now also supports Pres. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, after first opposing them.

On the two biggest issues we face – death and taxes – Sen. McCain is certainly no maverick.

It is fascinating to witness someone who has actually overcome the human urge to be “consistent.” It may bother, him, but evidently, he wants to win no matter what.

By constant repetition of the maverick theme, Sen. McCain is trying to convince voters that he is not a Republican – that he, and now his running mate, are anything but Republicans.

But, I agree with Barack – the American voters are too smart for that.

I am also confident that the voters will understand that Barack is for ending the Republican’s $3 trillion war and that he will start to rebuild America with that “peace dividend.”

In his attempt to propagate his image as a maverick, Sen. McCain recently doubled down by gambling on Sarah Palin. She may also prove to be just another make-believe maverick, too.

As the voters and the media get to know her, what will we find? I’m sure that a lot of people are scrambling to “look it up” on Sarah Palin. For instance, what’s the real story on her purported opposition to the “Bridge to Nowhere?” Many in the press are saying it is a lie.

In the meantime, Sen. McCain has doubled down on this one, too, by featuring that claim in his new commercials. The astounding thing is that Sen. McCain probably hasn’t looked it up either. He still doesn’t know what he bought in his desperate, last-minute roll of the dice.

Will the “Bridge to Nowhere” become the “flip flops” of this campaign? Will giant models of bridges show up at Palin campaign rallies much like giant sandals showed up at Kerry’s?

Will other questionable assertions prove their undoing? We’ll have to wait and see.

Sen. McCain has directly challenged the media – who have been so kind to him for so long – to look it up. I’m sure they will oblige.

We’ve all seen this movie (or opera) before – someone wants something so badly that they overreach. Maybe the Bridge to Nowhere is the perfect metaphor. Or, maybe the metaphor will involve pit bulls. Who knows? We’ll see.

Barack’s Temperament

Recently, I have heard from a few of you who are worried that Barack is not being aggressive enough. That he’s on the defensive. That the momentum has shifted.

My advice – trust Barack. He knows what he’s doing. He’s proven it time and again.

This morning, I even took my own advice. I went back and looked up an Obamagram I wrote on November 8, 2007, when the momentum had shifted – like it does in all ball games. In it I said, “The conventional wisdom is that the game is over. Because that’s what the national polls say. I think that’s dead wrong. And let me tell you why.”

On MSNBC on Monday, Keith Olbermann tried to get Barack to say that Sen. McCain is “lying.” Barack’s too disciplined to say that. Olbermann, in trying to be helpful, urged Barack to be more aggressive in the face of the Republican’s aggression.

I imagine that Barack understands that the Rove-style Republicans are trying to bait him into getting angry. But Barack is too savvy for that.

I have long said that Barack’s temperament is one of his principal qualifications for being president. He is steady, consistent, measured, considered, prudent and disciplined. Emotionally mature. That doesn’t mean he’s not tough. Just ask Alice Palmer – the Democratic State Senator whose seat Barack, using sharp elbows, took in his first election.

Sen. McCain and apparently Sarah Palin seem to be the opposites of Barack. Impulsive, angry, inconsistent, and willing to roll the dice. urge those of you who are nervous to keep the faith. We have by far the better man. I trust him and believe he knows what he’s doing. He will have to grapple with his own need to be “consistent” – like whether or not to stick with the slogan “change” that has been rendered meaningless as Tom Friedman so persuasively argues in his column today (see attachment).

And, like Barack, I trust the American voters, too. They’re not stupid. In the end, they won’t be distracted by Sen. McCain’s questionable assertions, contortions, and distortions. Ultimately, they will see him as a Make-Believe Maverick and a gambler who can’t talk straight.

Please pass it on.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: Response to 9/11 Offers Outline of McCain Doctrine


adobe pdf file Attachment: From the Gut

#34 Many Reasons to be Confident

Hello Everyone,

Over the last three weeks, I’ve witnessed a lot of hand-wringing among Obama supporters. Someone even called it bed-wetting.

To the contrary, I remain serenely confident that Barack will win. Let me tell you why.

An enthusiasm booster shot

Sen. McCain’s desperate and reckless V.P. pick seems to have been just what our campaign needed. It is impossible to sustain extremely high levels of energy for 20 months. There are inevitable momentum swings in any contest.

As the shock of Sen. McCain’s cynical selection started to wear off, Obama’s supporters started to get “fired up” again.

Here’s some evidence from the front. During a 48 hour period about 10 days ago, a flurry of unsolicited offers descended upon me.

  • 9 donors told me that they were going to “max out” to the Obama campaign and in 2 cases, to the DNC, too – for a total of over $90,000. The 2 largest had been major Clinton supporters.
  • 4 people asked me how they could volunteer, including 2 Northwestern professors who want to canvas in Indiana and an Amherst professor who can help with Latino voters in the Southwest. The other was a stranger who spotted my Obama wristband in an elevator, asked me how he could help, and followed up with an email later in the day!
  • This incoming barrage came from across the country – MA, CT, NY, FL, IL, CO, and CA.

The American Idol moment has past

The silly season that followed the Republican convention lasted about two weeks. The crisis in our financial system – including the sale of Merrill Lynch, where I had spent my entire career – has brought much needed sobriety back to our national conversation. I suspect this crisis will hold center stage through Election Day. It has become harder for the McCain campaign to distract voters and run away from his Republican roots.

I suspect that the causes of the current problems in our financial system can be traced to our cultural addiction to debt – a habit that has been acquired over the last four decades. More on that at another time.

During this crisis, voters are starting to be reminded, or are learning for the first time, of some of the primary attributes that commend Barack for the presidency. He’s calm, coherent, and cerebral. That’s why I was attracted to him when we first met over 5 years ago.

Because of this crisis, the nation is now seeing stark contrasts between Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain. The latter – who seems increasingly angry and confused and dishonest – is a mere shadow of himself in 2000.

The more desperate Sen. McCain gets, the more he resorts to repetitive lying. One of the whoppers: “Sen. Obama will raise your taxes.” A bold-faced lie. True, Barack will seek to roll back Pres. Bush’s income tax cuts – but only for couples earning over $250,000 – less than 2% of the population. Even considering the complexity of taxes on unearned income, independent observers agree that Barack’s proposals will actually cut taxes more than Sen. McCain’s will for most people.

It is no wonder that a former boss of mine at Merrill, who was Sen. McCain’s National Finance Chair in 2000, has discretely become an Obama supporter.

As we face the current financial crisis, it is instructive to see Barack being advised by Bob Rubin, Larry Summers, Paul Volcker and Warren Buffett, among other respected economic leaders – a marked contrast to Sen. McCain’s lineup.

The Ground Game

I am confident that Barack will win on Nov. 4 due to supporter enthusiasm and voter confidence.

But, as I’ve written about before, there’s one more very boring reason – his vastly superior ground game. Barack has a huge advantage in numbers of field offices, most of which have been open for months and are staffed by over 2000 paid employees and legends of volunteers. This ground game is the last, albeit boring, piece of the puzzle.

All of which costs money.

Many of us are dismayed by the excessive costs of presidential campaigns, but it’s a fact of life for now. The Republican Party continues to out raise the Democratic Party as it has for a long time. That was a principal reason why Barack couldn’t handcuff himself by taking federal funds.

We need to keep the Obama campaign well fueled for the stretch run. Paying for the staff in the field and the advertising and materials that support them is critical.

Our fundraising continues to be strong. As long as that continues, we can maintain our advantage on the ground, and our calm and coherent candidate will win. There should be dry beds all around on November 5th.

Please pass it on.


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#35 Pollster McCain and the Politics of Distraction

Hello Everyone,

February 19 redux

Some of you may recall that it was apparent in late February that Barack was going to win the nomination — barring some unforeseen disaster. But, it was in the media’s selfinterest at that time to continue to call it a “tight horse race”, and it was in Hillary Clinton’s self-interest at that time to pledge to stay in it until June. But, the real story was that Barack had a virtually insurmountable lead in Pledged Delegates in February, which was what mattered most under the Democrat’s unusual and highly-articulated rules.

I think we are now at that point in the general election. Here’s why.

Two high risk decisions

As I have written before, I have little confidence in polls — national polls, Electoral College polls, or exit polls. Sen. McCain’s decisions are a much better indicator of the state of the race than any poll. In fact, he is our best pollster.

Sen. McCain has now made 2 highly risky decisions that clearly signaled that he knew he was going to lose unless he took some drastic steps: 1) his pick of Sarah Palin, and 2) last week’s supposed “suspension” of his campaign. A single data point may be an aberration, but 2 data points indicate a clear trend.

If Sen. McCain didn’t believe he was falling irretrievably behind, he would not have taken such huge gambles. No quarterback throws a Hail Mary pass if his team is winning or the score is close. No QB attempts a trick play based on distraction or deception — that is likely to produce a fumble or an interception — unless he is in desperate straits. And, even if it works once, it’s hard to repeat.

The Palin pick

This was an impulsive attempt to change the momentum of the game. While it gave Sen. McCain’s campaign an instant boost, like a sugar high, it wears off quickly. And, like a quarterback hiding the ball, he can’t hide her forever.

I expect that Sarah Palin will prove to be an increasingly heavy lodestone around Sen. McCain’s neck in the next 36 days. He may have thought his downside was Dan Quayle, who didn’t sink George H.W. Bush. Sadly for Sen. McCain, to paraphrase a line from an earlier debate, “Sarah Palin is no Dan Quayle.” I predict that the vice presidential pick will matter this time. In highlighting his recklessness, and ironically, his unwillingness to put his country first, it will help to sink Sen. McCain.

Sen. McCain’s people can try to pound facts into Sarah Palin’s head, but they can’t actually educate her, teaching her grammar and teaching her to think clearly and coherently in 2 short months. It is even more instructive to read her then it is to hear her. Here is how Bob Herbert of the New York Times excerpted a portion of her interview with Katie Couric:

Ms. Couric asked Ms. Palin to explain how Alaska’s proximity to Russia “enhances your foreign policy credentials.”
“Well, it certainly does,” Ms. Palin replied, “because our, our next-door neighbors are foreign countries, there in the state that I am the executive of. And there—”
Gently interrupting, Ms. Couric asked, “Have you ever been involved in any negotiations, for example, with the Russians?”
“We have trade missions back and forth,” said Ms. Plain, “We do. It’s very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia. As Putin rears his head and comes into the airspace of the United States of America, where do they go? It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right out there. They are right next to our state.”

The Palin choice was designed in part to distract voters from the very fact Sen. McCain has been in Washington for 26 years and is a Republican with close ties to President Bush. Hurricane Gustav was temporarily used as an added distraction for that same purpose. It will be fascinating to see how the McCain campaign seeks to distract us from this Thursday’s vice presidential debate. They are now boxed into creating distractions from their main distraction. Will there be another hurricane or its equivalent? I am loath to doubt their creativity or disingenuousness.

Suspending his campaign

Sen. McCain’s second rash move was his out-of-the-blue decision to fake the suspension of his campaign last week. As Frank Rich of the Times points out (see attachment), Sen. McCain’s on-again off-again campaign suspension and threatened debate avoidance had some short-term benefits — distracting attention from the dissipation of the “Palin bump” and the unveiling of the real Sarah Palin in the Couric interview. Distractions from his main distraction. And in the process, he looks “impulsive, impetuous, and impatient” as another columnist had it.

No highly experienced politician would put himself through such potentially destructive contortions unless he was staring defeat squarely in the face. That’s why I say forget the pundits pointing to the polls as they breathlessly strain to retain our attention. Just follow Sen. McCain’s on-the-field decisions closely. They are far and away the best barometers available to us.

Redoubling our efforts

All of this is not intended to say “relax; we’ve got this game won”. It is meant to reassure the anxious among us. But, more importantly, it is to say that victory is clearly within reach. Our opponent obviously thinks so. We have to continue to play hard in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. We have to redouble our efforts by canvassing, convincing, calling, and giving. If we do, we will prove Sen. McCain’s polling instincts right — Barack Obama is going to win the presidency.


One last note for those nervous supporters who have urged Barack to show more passion and even flashes of anger in the face of all the Republican lies. That is not who Barack is and, in my opinion, it would be ill-advised.

Barack’s self-awareness is one of his great strengths. He wrote in Dreams From My Father “…another trick that I learned [as a teenage]: People were satisfied so long as you are courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied; they were relieved — such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn’t seem angry all the time.” Barack realized long ago that anger no longer works for black leaders. And, grouchiness probably doesn’t work any longer for white ones either.

Please pass it on.


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#36 We’ve Been Palling Around with Bill Ayers, Too

Hello Everyone,

My wife, Penny Sebring, and I have confessions to make. We’ve been “palling around” with that 1960’s radical from Chicago – Bill Ayers – for years.

Think of it – Penny, my petite, demure, Peace Corps, Northwestern PhD, schoolimprovement expert, research professor at the University of Chicago, and Grinnell College trustee. And, me – 65 year-old, WASP, investment banker turned philanthropist, Amherst College and University of Chicago trustee, and would-be school reformer. Palling around with a terrorist!

Well, not exactly palling around – unless you use the McCain-Palin definition.

And, we aren’t alone. It turns out that a large swath of the Chicago and Illinois establishments have been palling around with him, too. CEO’s, university presidents, Republicans, Democrats, foundation heads, public school leaders, wealthy philanthropists, and the Mayor – all palling around with Bill Ayers.

Penny has been deeply involved in the public school reform movement in Chicago for 20 years, and I have been, too, for several years. So has Bill Ayers. Since that work is central to McCain’s latest attacks, I know first hand how distorted his claims are and want to tell you why.

Barack’s principal “association” with Ayers was through the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC). In the 1990’s, philanthropist Walter Annenberg’s foundation gave $500 million to public school reform initiatives across the country. Most of this gift went to urban districts. Chicago’s grant totaled $49.2 million. A temporary organization was created to receive and disperse those funds for the benefit of about 210 Chicago public schools; it existed from 1995 to 2001.

The truth is that Barack’s highly-tangential connections to Ayers actually provide insights into Barack’s “character” that are diametrically opposed to those insinuated by McCain-Palin. Over 15 years ago, fresh out of Harvard Law School, Barack was actually starting to pal around with the establishment – not a 1960’s radical.

Anything but radical, Barack’s volunteer leadership of CAC – this short-lived not-forprofit endeavor – is actually proof that:

  1. Establishment leaders in Illinois recognized that Barack was an exceptional talent and embraced him as one of their own when he was only in his early 30’s,
  2. Barack has had a commitment to public school reform in Illinois for a very long time, and
  3. He continued to work for the people of Chicago – in this and other cases, for free – after returning from law school.

When I first began writing Obamagrams almost 20 months ago, I started by telling you that I first met Barack over 5 years ago – at a meeting of the Chicago Public Education Fund. The Fund, in turn, was an outgrowth of the Annenberg Challenge. It was also about that time that I went to a totally unrelated gathering at Bill Ayer’s house. So, by McCain-Palin’s circular reasoning, I’ve been palling around with Bill Ayers, too. More on that later.

The centerpiece of the McCain-Palin attempts to “Swift Boat” Barack is the Chicago Annenberg Challenge board. Take a look at that august board – hard to find any radicals here.

At it’s founding in 1995:

  1. Barack Obama– founding Chairman and President of the CAC; civil rights attorney; lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School; already a member of the Board of Directors of the Joyce Foundation (3rd-largest foundation in Illinois); Harvard Law School, 1991; former President of the Harvard Law Review.
  2. Patricia Graham– founding Vice Chairman of the CAC; President of the Spencer Foundation (5th largest foundation in Illinois); Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (first female dean at Harvard University).
  3. Susan Crown– civic leader; member of one of Chicago’s most prominent and wealthiest business and philanthropic families; her brother, Jim, now co-chairs Barack’s Illinois Finance Committee and is Chair of the University of Chicago’s Board of Trustees.
  4. Stanley Ikenberry– President of the University of Illinois; member of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago (the leading business and civic organization in Chicago whose members include all of the CEO’s of the area’s largest corporations.)
  5. Handy Lindsey– Executive Director of the Field Foundation of Illinois (originally established by the Marshall Field family).
  6. Ray Romero– Vice President and General Counsel of Ameritech.
  7. Arnold Weber– President of the Civic Committee; former President of Northwestern University and the University of Colorado.
  8. Wanda White – former Deputy Commissioner of Economic Development under Chicago Mayors Washington, Sawyer and Daley.

At the end of its existence in 2000:

  1. Barack Obama– Chairman.
  2. Patricia Graham– Vice Chairman.
  3. Edward Bottum– former President and Vice Chairman of Continental Illinois Bank (one of the 10 largest banks in the U.S. at that time).
  4. Victoria Chou– Dean of the College of Education, University of Illinois at Chicago.
  5. Connie Evans– Founder and President of the Women’s Self-Employment Project.
  6. John McCarter– President and CEO of the Field Museum (one of the largest in Illinois).
  7. Susan Noyes– former attorney at Sidley & Austin (one of Chicago’s most prestigious law firms – Michelle and Barack met while working there); a member of the Eli Lilly family.
  8. Jim Reynolds– Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO of Loop Capital Services; now on the Lyric Opera and University of Chicago Hospital boards, among others.
  9. Nancy Searle– philanthropist; member of the wealthy G.D. Searle & Company (a major drug company) family (Donald Rumsfeld was once its CEO).
  10. Scott Smith – President, CEO and Publisher of the Chicago Tribune.

Bill Ayers never sat on the Annenberg Challenge board.

The presidents of 3 of the 5 largest foundations in Illinois were instrumental in getting the Annenberg grant and forming the CAC board.

  1. Adele Simmons– President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the largest in Illinois and the 9th largest in the U.S.; former President of Hampshire College; god-daughter of Adlai Stevenson.
  2. Deborah Leff– President of the Joyce Foundation.
  3. Patricia Graham (see above).

Penny and I, like Barack, believe that Ayers’ acts 40 years ago were detestable. He has worked on school reform in Chicago for over 20 years.

Ayers was at the time of the CAC and is still a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago with a doctorate from Columbia University. He is a former Assistant Deputy Mayor for Education for the City of Chicago. He was even named Chicago Citizen of the Year in 1997 during the term of the Annenberg Challenge.

His father was socially conscious and a major figure in Chicago’s business and civic community for three decades as Chairman and CEO of Commonwealth Edison (Chicago’s largest utility); he was a Vice President of the Chicago School Board in the 1980’s.

Ayers was one of 3 authors of the proposal to the Annenberg Foundation which sought the CAC grant. The other two were:

Anne Hallett – former Executive Director of the Wieboldt Foundation.
Warren Chapman – Senior Program Officer for Education at the Joyce Foundation; former Vice President and National Philanthropic Advisor, JP Morgan-Chase; and currently a Vice Chancellor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Here’s where Penny’s “association” starts. As part of the proposal, the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago (which she had co-founded) was named to evaluate the project, and she was one of the 2 people identified by name as representing CCSR.

CCSR has a national reputation for the high quality of the research it conducts on the performance of Chicago public schools. It is now part of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, which has become the focus of a vast amount of Penny’s and my time and philanthropic resources.

John Ayers (Bill’s brother), Victoria Chou (the CAC board member), and Anne Hallett (the CAC proposal co-author) served on CCSR’s steering committee.

In August 2003, CCSR published a 251-page Final Technical Report on Annenberg (cover attached.) The report concluded “the Challenge had little impact on student outcomes.” One of the primary reasons for this was that there were “too few resources for too many schools” (less than $250,000 per school). There is little evidence that Annenberg “pushed for radicalism in schools” as the headline for an irresponsible op-ed in the Wall Street Journal had it. In fact, Mayor Daley took control of the Chicago public schools starting in 1995, the same year the CAC started to distribute the Annenberg grant.

After the grant was received, Ayers and Chapman (from the Joyce Foundation) served as co-chairs of the 23-member affiliated group, Chicago School Reform Collaborative, which represented a large cross section of organizations and made recommendations to the CAC board on how the money should be used.

After it appeared that the Annenberg grant would be received, Patricia Graham, the Spencer Foundation head and Harvard dean, was empowered to recruit Barack to serve as board chairman. He was already a member of the Joyce Foundation board and was recommended by Deborah Leff, the Joyce Foundation President, among others. Ayers had no involvement in the CAC board formation process.

Suffice it to say, the Annenberg effort was led and embraced by the Chicago – and Illinois – business, civic and philanthropic elite. It is patently absurd to suggest that the CAC board – or the manner in which it distributed the Annenberg grant – was radical in any way.

As the CAC was winding up its activities, it used $2 million of its grant to seed a successor organization – the Chicago Public Education Fund. Its Founding Chairman was Scott Smith of the Chicago Tribune who had also been a CAC board member; Penny is also a member of the equally prestigious Fund board.

Barack and I are both long-time members of the Fund’s Leadership Council. As mentioned earlier, that is where I first met him – at a meeting of the Council in 2003.

My first “association” with Bill Ayers was about 5 years ago when he hosted in his home a going-away party for Tony Bryk, the University of Chicago professor with whom Penny partnered to found CCSR. All manner of Chicago school leaders were there, as I recall.

And, about 3 weeks ago, Penny returned to Ayer’s house to pal around some more – this time celebrating the publication of a new book on school reform.

The point of all of this is simple.

Barack was asked to volunteer his time to lead a large group of Chicago notables in distributing a philanthropic grant to Chicago public schools. Bill Ayers was involved in that effort, along with dozens of others, including Penny. If that constitutes “palling around with a 1960’s radical”, all of us are guilty. Including me.

Barack’s other “association” with Ayers was the Woods Funds of Chicago. This is a low-profile foundation which makes grants of less than $4 million annually. Its goal is to “increase opportunities for less advantaged people and communities” in the Chicago area. One of its priorities is to support “community organizing.” In fact, it funded some of Barack’s work before he left for Harvard and before he became aboard member. Its 8- member board is currently chaired by a DePaul University professor. In 2001, Barack and Bill Ayres served on the board along with Cynthia Campbell, the President of the McCormick Theological Seminary and Eden Martin, a partner at Sidley & Austin and President of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club (the CEO-dominated organization I described earlier.) Once again, Barack was associating with Bill Ayers in the company of the Chicago establishment – and funding the very same “community organizing” that Sarah Palin has chosen to mock.

It seems like it is time, in the waning days of this campaign, for McCain-Palin to return to discussing serious issues – like the crisis in the credit markets – and drop its efforts to demean Barack – and derivatively Penny and me – in frivolous and distorted ways.

As I have said repeatedly, we need an Obama presidency because of his 3 main qualities – intellect, temperament and worldview. The editors of the New Yorker have said it better than I can (see attachment).

To resort to an overused metaphor, we are now on the one-yard line. We must muster all of our remaining resources – intellectual, physical and financial – to get in to the end zone. I exhort you to help in any and every way you can. Only 21 days to go.

Please pass it on.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: CCSR Annenberg Report 2003


adobe pdf file Attachment: The Choice

#37 Winning Big — The “Ownership Campaign”

Hello Everyone,

Twelve days left (and it’s my birthday today, too). Barack isn’t sitting on his lead; he’s pressing to not only win, but win big. Warning against complacency, he reminds us of his “loss” in New Hampshire in January (although he actually didn’t lose; he tied Sen. Clinton with 9 pledged delegates each.)

As I’ve written before, I think Barack essentially won the nomination on February 19, even though the last primary was on June 3. I now think historians may write that he won the presidency on August 28. That was the day that Sen. McCain picked Sarah Palin. She has proven to be the political equivalent of a “sugar high.”


I think that Barack may wind up winning the presidency by a comfortable margin – the “L” word may even apply in the end. Let me tell you why.

I think Barack has created a new approach to politics – what I am calling the “Ownership Campaign”.

In keeping with his recently-mocked community organizing experience, Barack is naturally predisposed to be inclusive. So, from the start, he designed his campaign that way.

Twenty months later, over 3 million donors, untold numbers of young people and African Americans, and unprecedented legions of volunteers all have taken a stake in the Obama campaign. We all have a sense of ownership never felt before.

The centerpiece of this strategy has been Barack’s on-line fundraising apparatus. Why has the campaign repeatedly asked us for $5 contributions – a seemingly measly sum? I suggest it’s because they understand the psychological concept of “commitment and consistency,” which we have discussed before. They know that once a voter makes a donation of any size, he or she has made a commitment. Once made, he or she will defend that decision in order to be consistent. Critically, he or she is also more likely to advocate for Barack among family and friends and to turn out to vote. In some ways, making a first donation is the equivalent of very early voting.

As has been widely reported, young people have committed to Barack in unprecedented numbers. There is also ample evidence that they are “influencing up” — convincing their parents and grandparents to vote for Barack. Like Jimmy Carter’s and Teddy Kennedy’s did. By committing and convincing, they too are acting like owners.

African Americans have probably never been this energized. Their emotional investment in Barack is undoubtedly greater than previously witnessed in any segment of our society.

Registration among these two groups is at an all-time high, as we all know. But on a deeper level, the act of registering which is motivated by the desire to vote for a specific candidate is also a form of investment. I expect it will translate into much higher turnouts than have been the norm for both of these groups.

The Obama campaign’s approach to volunteer recruitment and deployment is also groundbreaking. Using cutting-edge technology, it has been able to attract volunteers in numbers previously unimaginable. Of course, committing time to canvas, phone bank, or stuff envelopes represents an even greater investment than making a donation.

The Obama campaign has many more field offices with vastly larger contingent of paid staff members, and they have been open much longer than those of the McCain-Palin campaign. These offices are important for many reasons, principal among which is serving as a home base for hoards of volunteers. They also demonstrate a commitment to, and respect for, a community – much like when a community organizer joins a local church, synagogue or mosque. If you invest in a community, it is more likely to invest in you.

In all of these ways, the Obama campaign has encouraged ownership to an extent we have never seen before. Even the campaign’s slogans emphasize inclusiveness – Yes WE Can; Change WE Can Believe In; and Change WE Need.

These fundamentals of Obama’s Ownership Campaign are the main reasons for my confidence in the outcome.

Other Reasons

There are a couple of additional reasons, too.

I suspect the much-feared “Bradley Effect” (white voters lying to pollsters) will be impossible to discern in the final analysis. I’m not even convinced there is such a phenomenon. Were it to exist this time, it may be more than compensated for by a countervailing force which some are calling the “Obama Effect” – the source of which is what I have described as the Ownership Campaign. And, all of this is undergirded by the proclivity of Americans to back a winner or jump on the bandwagon.

I believe that Barack will win big not just because of a throw-the-bums-out reaction to the credit crisis. That is one factor, but I think it is more complicated than that. More fundamentally, I think the current situation has provided both candidates an opportunity
to demonstrate how they would lead in a crisis. Barack clearly took advantage of that opportunity while Sen. McCain faltered badly. As Frank Rich wrote on Sunday, “Bush and the economy alone did not cause McCain’s collapse.” (See attachment.)

Likewise, I believe that Gen. Powell’s endorsement on Sunday was as important for its careful reasoning as it was for its persuasive power. As with most utterances offered at critical moments, it bears reading as well as hearing. (See attachment.) Since his comments were made without notes, they are all the more remarkable for their clarity, coherence and completeness.

I have said repeatedly that three of Barack’s fundamental qualities – his intellect, temperament, and worldview – have long been the sources of my attraction to him. It is reassuring to see Gen. Powell basically coming to the same conclusion.

Public Funding and Governing

The magnitude of Barack’s impending victory matters because winning by a large margin will enhance his ability to govern. On the heels of raising more than $150 million in September alone, we can all now see his wisdom in foregoing federal financing (by taking it, Sen. McCain has been limited to spending $84 million during the two months following his convention).

In July, I wrote that Barack was catching “flak from all sides,” starting with this campaign financing decision. I thought at the time that he made that smart decision in part so he would have the resources to compete in more states. In so doing, he could roll up a larger popular-vote (and Electoral-College) margin. He could also extend his coattails to more Democratic congressional candidates. This could possibly provide a filibuster-proof majority, enabling him to end the gridlock in Washington. (Do not, however, expect him to abuse that concentration of power. Expect him to govern more from the center, drawing even more flak from the left in the process.)

Moreover, Barack’s rejection of public financing has permitted him to enlist millions of additional small donors. After the election, they will also have a stake in helping him succeed in office, as a friend recently pointed out to me. A large margin of victory will also give him greater legitimacy following two election cycles where narrow victories have stirred controversy.

So, go vote early. Penny and I have. They were the most memorable votes we have ever cast. We all own this the Obama campaign, and we will all share in his victory.

Please pass it along.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: He Just Can’t Quit W


adobe pdf file Attachment: Powell Endorsement

#38 Another Great Depression?

Hello Everyone,

You may have been wondering where I have been since my last Obamagram on October 23. Well, I’ve been trying to figure out what to make of Barack Obama’s remarkable victory and whether to continue writing Obamagrams or not.

The Election

First, congratulations to all of you — whether you voted for the President-Elect or not. As I wrote earlier, Daniel Patrick Moynihan once told a friend of ours who worked for him, “America has within its gift to become the first truly multi-racial society in history.” We’ve just taken another giant step in that direction.

To those who supported the Obama campaign with donations large or small or worked on the phones or on the ground, thank you. Election night in Grant Park, for those of you not able to be there, was magical. It was at once celebratory, surreal, and serene. The president-Elect, with his seemingly perfect pitch, set just the right tone. He was optimistic, grateful, and gracious, even deciding to cancel planned fireworks. It was definitely a commencement, not a graduation.

What’s Ahead?

I have been saying to people, adapting a familiar admonition, “a movement is a terrible thing to waste”.

Months ago, when I started to write these missives, I did so to clarify my own thinking (you don’t know what you really think until you write it down), to introduce Barack to many of you, to vouch for him based on my own due diligence and as a member of his National Finance Committee, and to generate support for him, while helping to sustain that support during the inevitable highs and lows of the campaign.

There were 37 Obamagrams dispatched over a 20 month period. I learned a lot and hope you learned something, too.

My instincts say to keep writing, not knowing where that might lead. I do know that it would be a shame if most of us went back to our pre-campaign postures, barely paying attention to our democracy and largely “out-sourcing” it to professional politicians and the self-interested.

If, however, you’ve heard enough from me, click “reply” and tell me so. I promise not to be offended.

Putting the Credit Crisis in Perspective

As we enter the new year, everyone is concerned about the “economy” – or more accurately, the “credit crisis”. So I thought I would start by offering some personal perspectives on those concerns. And, as you will see, maybe I just had too much time on my hands over the holidays!

I learned during the campaign that the media writ large tends to oversimplify and over amplify, frequently coalescing around one narrative all too quickly. Reaching for the drama in any story, they seem to need to hold our attention, like the cable news channels try to do by constantly displaying the “Breaking News” banner across their screens.

At bottom, this is our fault, too, because we collectively thirst for impossible predictions or demand quick and facile explanations for complicated phenomena. For instance, in late 2007, I expressed my doubts about the predictive utility of Senator Clinton’s 20+ point lead in the national polls while many pronounced the race over. We never seem to be satisfied with the explanation, “I don’t know” or “It’s unknowable”.

The Sky is Falling

That’s why I am frustrated these days as commentators, and politicians, far and wide ominously liken the current credit crisis to the Great Depression. “In 2008, the stock market had its worst year since the Great Depression”. Not so fast. It isn’t that simple. Or that scary. I surely won’t pretend to know where we are headed, and I don’t mean to diminish the seriousness of our situation. But, I do think we need to be reticent to cry “the sky is falling.”

Here’s another perfect example of “the sky is falling” rhetoric. In Monday’s Wall Street Journal, one article ominously begins: “The current U.S. recession, with no end in sight, threatens to be the longest since 1933…”

If the data in the chart accompanying the article had been more thoughtfully displayed, a more measured way to characterize that data might have been: “During the period from 1969 to 1982, the U.S. Economy experienced 4 recessions, while over the next comparable period (1983-1995) it experienced only 1 recession. During the current period (1996-2008), it has witnessed only 2. While today’s recession is in its 13th month and is not yet over, 2 of the recessions in the 1969- 1982 period lasted even longer (16 months). The duration of each of these recessions pales in comparison to the long recession during the Great Depression, which persisted for 43 months (1929 to 1933).”

Dec. ’69 – Nov. ’70 ___________ 11
Nov. ’73 – Mar. ’75 ________________ 16
Jan. ’80 – Jul. ’80 ______ 6
Jul. ’81 – Nov. ’82 ________________ 16
Jul. ’90 – Mar. ’91 ________ 8
Mar. ’01 – Nov. ’01 ________ 8
Dec. ’07 – present _____________ 13
Aug. ’29 – Mar. ’33 ___________________________________________ 43

What’s a Recession?

Most of us who are not economists loosely think of a “recession” being a period when Gross Domestic Product (GDP) actually declines for at least 2 consecutive quarters. The government declared recently that the U.S. has been in a recession since the 4th quarter of 2007. When it was declared, there had not yet been 2 consecutive quarters of declining GDP. So, I looked up the more nuanced definition used by the government’s National Bureau of Economic Research: “a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few 3 months, normally visible in real GDP growth, real personal income, employment (non-farm payrolls), industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales.” By that measure, we have, in fact, been in a recession for a while.

A More Comparable Period

Very few of us are old enough to remember the 1930s, or have studied that era in depth. But, some of us are old enough to remember a pretty dramatic period of market dislocation — the 1970s and early 1980s which I just referred to. Despite the obvious differences between then and now, I think recalling that earlier time can provide some much needed perspective — and possibly even calm our nerves a little.

During that very tumultuous time, we learned much that is applicable today. Most importantly, the world didn’t come to an end. In fact, an extended period of virtually-uninterrupted prosperity followed it. We learned that we are all culpable for our economic difficulties, not just some malevolent “others”. Confidence in our system, and in ourselves, is the all-important, but often elusive, pre-requisite to economic health. Sustained and capable leadership by presidents who are publicly persuasive and who engender trust is critical. Broad cultural phenomena affect economic conditions in ways that are too complicated to understand in the short run, if ever.

Since I graduated from college in 1964, was in the Army in the late 1960’s, and started in the investment banking business in 1970, I had a front row seat and paid close attention to the turbulence that engulfed us in the 1963-1982 period which I will summarize below.

Today’s breathless and ceaseless reporting would have us believe, as mentioned above, that the 2008 stock market was “the worst since the Great Depression”. Technically true, but misleading in some ways.

I think that the S&P 500 Index, with its 500 stocks, is a better measure of market performance than either the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and its 30 stocks, or the Nasdaq Composite Index which are the two most commonly cited indices. [The Dow is older, having been established in 1896 (with only 12 stocks), while the S&P 500 was started in 1923, and the Nasdaq in 1971. The Dow gets a lot of play presumably because of its common heritage with The Wall Street Journal. And the Nasdaq index’s popularity, gained during the tech bubble, has persisted for some inexplicable reason.] Nonetheless, I use the S&P as my primary point of reference.

True, the S&P 500 was down 39% in calendar 2008 (down 37% including dividends, a better measure still, but less widely quoted). That was in the ball park of the 47% and 39% declines in 1931 and 1937. Pretty scary stuff. But, it is seldom pointed out these days that the market was down 30%, much more recently, in 1974.

More interesting, less arbitrary, and perhaps more instructive than calendar year measures, however, are those recorded between market highs and market lows. In that respect, I think it is much more appropriate to compare the Jan. 1973 – Sep. 1974 period (S&P down 50%) with the Oct. 2007 – Nov. 2008 period (S&P down 53%). Pretty comparable.

By contrast, the peak-to-trough decline from 1929 to 1932 was 89%! Not very comparable. So why are folks so quick to go there?

My point here is a simple one. The markets in the 1970s are much more relevant to the current situation then are the markets in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Why, then, are we constantly pointed to the Great Depression as our frame of reference? Greater dramatic effect, perhaps? Politics? More on that later.

1963-1982 Turbulence

I think it very useful to remember what that dramatic period was really like. Think of all the dislocations and social changes we experienced – 4 major assassinations; 4 recessions; the civil rights movement; a presidential retirement; the only presidential resignation in history; the Vietnam War and the Great Society (“Guns and Butter”); the draft; OPEC and an oil embargo; hyper-inflation plus high unemployment and slow growth leading to “stagflation”; Iranian hostages; urban riots; the women’s movement; the environmental movement; and major stock market declines.

Although I come to this without the benefit of professional training as an historian or economist (as many of you will undoubtedly remind me), in my mind’s eye I imagine the trouble starting in 1963. Here is a chronology of the 20 years that followed:

1963 — JFK assassinated; LBJ assumed presidency; March on Washington.

1964 – the Civil Rights Act passed; LBJ defeated Goldwater, winning a full term.

1965 – Bloody Sunday in Selma; Voting Rights Act passed; Malcolm X assassinated; Medicare and Medicaid passed.

1966 — National Organization of Women established.

1967 — Supreme Court knocked down remaining anti-miscegenation laws in 17 states (Barack’s parents’ marriage in 1960 in Hawaii would have been illegal in over half of the states in the union.)

1968 — MLK assassinated; riots in Washington, D.C., Detroit, Watts, and elsewhere; LBJ declined to run for second term; RFK assassinated on night he ostensibly won Democratic presidential nomination; violent anti-Vietnam-War demonstrations at Democratic National Convention in Chicago; Nixon elected president; inflation exceeded 4% for first time in decades.

1969 – 11 month recession started.

1970 – first Earth day; EPA established; inflation exceeded 6%.

1971 – Nixon imposed wage and price controls.

1972 – Watergate break-in; Nixon re-elected anyway; Equal Rights Amendment approved by Congress (states failed to ratify it by 1979 deadline).

1973 – S&P 500 set record of 122; OPEC established and oil embargo started, leading to long lines at the pump; 16 month recession started.

1974 – Nixon resigned and Ford assumed presidency; S&P 500 bottoms out at 61, a 49% decline; inflation exceeds 12%.

1975 – Vietnam War ended; unemployment rate hit 9%.

1976 – Carter defeated Ford, the incumbent president.

1979 – the second oil crisis; Iran took 52 U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days.

1980 – Reagan defeated Carter, another incumbent president; hostages released on day of inauguration; 6 month recession; stagflation reached apex with “misery index” of 22% [employment rate (8%) plus inflation rate (14 %)], staggering compared to Nov. 2008 misery index of 8% [unemployment rate (7%) plus inflation rate (1%)]; prime rate hit record of almost 22%; after almost 7 years, the S&P exceeded its 1974 high.

1981 – 16 month recession started.

1982 – unemployment rate peaked at almost 11%; real GDP declined almost 2%.

Inappropriate Comparisons

Economists, politicians and others have been quick to draw parallels between today’s difficulties and the Great Depression in part because of the fragility of our banking system and capital markets and a fear of deflation. Most tend to ignore comparisons with the 1970s and early 1980s, in part because inflation, not deflation, was a major concern then.

Having said that, so far, the key economic statistics for the 1970s-80s seem to be much closer in magnitude to today’s then the Depression’s were, as indicated in the following table.

  1920s/30s 1970s/80s 2007/08
S&P 500 (peak to trough) -89% -50% -53%
Peak Unemployment Rate 25% 11% 7%
Largest Annual GDP Decline (1929-33) (1981-82) (through 3Q08
Real: -27% -46% None
Nominal: -46% None None

Cultural Revolutions

The period from the early 1960s to the early 1980s was, indeed, difficult in many ways. As my wife, Penny, points out, while the Chinese were suffering through their Cultural Revolution (from approximately 1966 to Mao’s death in 1976), we endured a cultural revolution of our own. Social unrest is not good for markets or economies.

I believe we have now entered a new period of cultural change in the U.S. as we try to wean ourselves off of what I call an “addiction to debt” — as individuals, as institutions, and as a country. Painful though it may be, getting off the wagon is seldom fatal. But continuing addictive behavior can be fatal. So, our current cultural change can lead to a healthier economy and markets then we experienced in the debt-fueled expansion from 1982 to 2007.

Con Games

I have long said that the financial markets are a “con game”. That is, a confidence game in the most fundamental meaning of that term. Markets are based on predictability and trust among their participants. Investors will invest in companies led by stable managements that they deem trustworthy and avoid those which are considered unstable or untrustworthy. Similarly, healthy markets require stable and trustworthy political leadership symbolized most importantly, in the U.S., by the president.

In hindsight, it should have been no surprise that the U.S. markets and economy fared badly during the 20-year period of great presidential instability from 1960 to 1980, when:

  1. none of the 5 presidents completed more than 1 elected term in office;
  2. 2 left office prematurely, 1 by assassination and 1 by resignation;
  3. 1 decided to not run for reelection; and
  4. 2 incumbents lost their bids for reelection.

We have had much more stability — and prosperity — beginning with Ronald Reagan’s presidency. On the other hand, I think most of us would agree that the loss of confidence in our current president has exacerbated the current downturn.


The points I am trying to make here are relatively simple. I am more optimistic than many observers because I’ve witnessed much worse economic conditions during my adult lifetime and seen us recover from them quite nicely. And, in the current situation, we are not being bombarded by the kinds of societal shocks we endured back then.

While I see the utility of playing the Depression card, it probably overstates the case and can be self-defeating if we stay on that depressing theme too long. No one can predict outcomes, and I don’t pretend to try. But, I think psychology and social contagions greatly affect economic conditions and should be carefully attended to.

I believe in the power of leadership — for companies and for countries. And, I strongly believe in the competence, judgment, and temperament of the man who will shortly take office as our 44th president.

One of the many reasons I think President Obama will be good for our markets and our economy is because he thinks in nuanced ways. He, too, is crying “the sky is falling” these days – because he knows what he needs to do to get a massive stimulus package passed with bi-partisan support. Such a package is smart and much needed. He also knows that a “crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” So, he knows he can get some things done now that we should have been doing all along, but lacked the political will to do – like investing in our infrastructure. But, once passed, I suspect that President Obama, with his perfect pitch, will start to strike more optimistic notes, understanding the psychology of markets as well as their mechanics. He’s no “one note Johnny.” That’s why we will be thankful we elected him.

As always, I look forward to your comments, corrections, and reactions.


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#39 Inauguration Day, Excessive Pay, and Tom Daschle

Hello Everyone,

This is my second post-election Obamagram.

Before getting to the meat of the matter, let me offer a few observations about our experience at the Inauguration.

Inauguration Day

Overall, it was “priceless, but not without its price”. It was also, to borrow a phrase from our daughter, Casey, both “admirable and aggravating”.

Priceless goes almost without saying. History, wrapped in great good will. I had said it the night before Gail Collins used it to headline her column: “Woodstock Without the Mud.” Or, drugs. The President’s address was of a piece with his speech on November 4 – serious, verging on somber, preparing to govern. The price extracted was to be expected, given the great physical exertion the day required because of the size of the crowds and the grinding cold.

The accessibility premise of the day was admirable. As Christopher Hitchens put it, “…to occupy the same democratic space as everyone else…” A metaphor for our times and the President’s reminder that we are all in this together. But, at the same time, it was aggravating. Our family wound up with seven precious tickets to the swearing in, but only Penny and I actually gained entrance to the Capitol grounds. Thousands of the ticketed were turned away.

But, our last – and lasting – image that day was of our new President and First Lady, out of their limousine, striding confidently as they turned the corner to cover the last hundred yards to the reviewing stand in front of the White House. They looked jubilant and entirely at ease – as if they were meant to be there.

This Obamagram is largely prompted by President Obama’s decision on Tuesday to accept Tom Daschle’s decision to withdraw and the President’s pronouncements yesterday limiting executive compensation at companies receiving government support.

Excessive Pay

The issue of excessive compensation has been on the now-President’s mind for a long time. I first became aware of his concerns in October 2005 during a trip I took with the then new Senator and his aide, Jordan Kaplan, to Omaha to meet with Warren Buffett. I had been invited to tag along because of my long-held interest in Mr. Buffett’s philosophy about investing and all manner of worldly matters and my tangential connection to his world through our son, Peter. The latter was working at the time for Lou Simpson, one of Mr. Buffett’s top lieutenants; Peter has since started an investment partnership of his own based on Mr. Buffett’s beliefs.

As I’m sure I have told several of you, this was the trip on which I was asked if I was Barack’s body guard (he had none back then). It was the trip’s true highlight. On the plane ride to Omaha, the Senator quizzed me about excessive executive compensation. Given my perspective as a long-time investment banker with Merrill Lynch (who could have known its fate after I left its employ), I was well versed on the subject. The following morning, after breakfast, the two of us consulted with Mr. Buffett for an hour and a half in his daughter’s kitchen. The first topic raised by the Senator was excessive compensation. Mr. Buffett was quick to argue that its source was not greed – the pervasively popular explanation which I had shared – but envy. As always, a good point. My house, plane, yacht – and pay – are bigger than yours. Not much changes after 1st grade, does it? As we left Susie Buffett’s house, Warren tugged on my sleeve, drawing my attention to his Lincoln town car – which he drives himself – parked out front. He wanted me to see its license plate – no numbers, just the word “THRIFTY”.

Tom Daschle
Fast forward to Tuesday, and the end of Tom Daschle’s nomination for secretary of HHS. I applaud the President for pulling the plug on his close adviser, knowing how difficult it was.

Another Lincoln town car – or was it a Cadillac? – figured prominently in Daschle’s decision to “withdraw.” I don’t know about its license plate. I do know the fellow who supplied the car – someone not particularly given to thrift.

Lessons Learned
I think there are connections here. Broader lessons to be learned.

Over the past several months, as the credit crisis has unfolded, I keep trying to understand its genesis. The root of it all may be the exploitation of what is now conventionally known as “Other People’s Money”. OPM, for short. Yes, pronounced like the illicit drug. And equally addictive.

Looking back, it seems to me that the investment banks laid the groundwork for their ultimate demise when they started to rely on OPM.

When I entered the business in 1970, I recall – hopefully correctly – that only one firm was publicly held. A perfect trivia question. Donaldson, Lufkin, Jenrette. Bill Donaldson was later chair of the SEC.

All, or virtually all, the other investment banks were partnerships. Their capital was supplied by the individuals who ran them. It was “Their Own Money.” TOM, for short. Like a person’s name. Something personal. But, not the way Tom Daschle though of that car.

And, these investment banking partnerships were even more personal than that. Most of them were general partnerships. That is, their partners, or owners, not only supplied the capital, but they had unlimited liability for the firms’ obligations, and that liability was “joint and several”. So if one partner made a bad “bet” that ate through all of his and his partners’ capital, the creditors could come after all of the partners’ houses – and even their cars. Investment banks viewed risk very differently back then. Because it was TOM, Their Own Money. The interests of all of the partners were closely aligned.

Compensation came principally in the form of a return on investment of TOM. Not out of the pockets of invisible shareholders – who one CEO once described to me as “those strangers.”

Over the years, as all of the major investment banks went public, they relied overwhelmingly on OPM. Naturally, they came to view risk entirely differently. Heads I win, tails I don’t lose. Little alignment between the shareholders (the owners who supplied the money) and the managers (who used the money.)

Compensation came to be driven by envy as Mr. Buffett pointed out. Somewhat like shortstops – I’m worth more than other shortstops in the league.

In the same vein, over the past forty years or so we have all become addicted to OPM. Debt can be seen as a form of Other People’s Money. Credit card debt. Home equity loans. Mortgages. Leveraged buyouts (now called “private equity”). Government debt.

Warren Buffett owns his own car and drives it himself. Tom Daschle neither owns the car nor drives it. Envy for what the other guy has, and I don’t. Joe Biden was right – it is patriotic to pay taxes. It all fits somehow, doesn’t it?

A final footnote on a different subject. I am concerned about the “Buy America” language– and the protectionist stance it portends – in the House version of the stimulus bill, as I’m sure many of you are. I am contacting some in Congress and in the White House to voice my concern. You should, too. I was encouraged yesterday when the President said, “we can’t send a protectionist message” in this legislation.


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#40 Culture of Addiction and Impatience

Hello Everyone,

This is my third Obamagram since the election and 40th in all. My current thoughts about the economy and the Obama administration started to come into focus last week. Chance encounters with two wealthy friends helped that happen. They had supported Senator Obama’s run for president, but were now separately grousing that he was doing too little to fix the economy, wasn’t acting fast enough in doing so, and with his three-pronged budget agenda – energy, education, and health care – was trying to do too much at one time. He was taking his eye off the ball.

Those encounters reminded me of how, during the long campaign, supporters periodically questioned Senator Obama’s performance, offering up all manner of unsolicited advice. In a November 2007 Obamagram, at a time when Senator Clinton was leading in the national polls by over 20 points, I wrote, “the conventional wisdom is that the game is over”. I added, “I think that’s dead wrong.” I believed then that Obama knew what he was doing and would prevail in the end. I feel the same way again today.

The irony of my friends’ criticisms struck me. Here were two honorable men, highly successful investors and champions of private enterprise, who had amassed fortunes using considerable debt while enjoying individual tax rates as low as 15%. But, now they were demanding a quick governmental fix to a mess made, in part, by our society’s excessive use of debt and the stimulative effect of tax cuts. Although I have for years assiduously avoided the former, I readily admit that I have also benefited from the latter.

Culture of Addiction

The New York Times’ Joe Nocera’s 1994 book, A Piece of the Action, pinpoints an event that may have jumpstarted the American consumer’s addiction to debt, the ultimate effects of which we are battling fiercely today.

In 1958, Bank of America (ironically) launched the first credit card – the Bankamericard, now known as Visa. True to its first name, it was the vehicle that, for the first time in history, provided individuals with lines of credit, something previously available only to businesses. This financial innovation introduced consumers to a new and highly addictive means to get and sustain a consumption “high”. Credit cards were the equivalent of “pot”. They ultimately set the stage for the borrowing equivalent of “methamphetamines” — home equity loans, adjustable rate mortgages, sub-prime mortgages, and all the rest.

Over the past three decades, untold numbers of so-called financial innovations were also used by businesses, financial institutions and investors, producing impenetrable complexity and unanalyzable risk – the equivalent of “opium”.

During my nearly 35-year investment banking career, I witnessed companies repeatedly straining for faster growth or higher returns than their businesses could naturally produce. Diversification into lines of business they did not know and the use of leverage they could not sustain “enabled” these bad habits – what I would call performance-enhancing strategies.

Isn’t it fitting, then, that our culture is currently obsessed with Visa cards, Viagra, and steroids? All in the endless pursuit of things that we have not earned and giving the appearance of prosperity that, to some extent, was not real.

We are all culpable for this mess. There is no shortage of culprits. The devil didn’t make us do it. Almost all of us have been acting irresponsibly and self-indulgently, in varying degrees, for a long time.

This is also a truly a-partisan problem, spread by social contagion over many different administrations. We need to change our ways and take responsibility for our financial health. As I’ve said before, getting off the wagon will be painful, but it’s not fatal. Failing to get off it almost always is fatal.

I have used debt extensively at various times in my life. I have felt the fear of being over extended. And, I know that the ability to borrow, and to lend, have been essential to societies since the beginning of time. But, I also know that we humans repeatedly have the tendency to overdo a good thing.

I recognize that these fundamental changes will affect tens of millions of Americans, and untold millions around the world. I wish it could be otherwise.

A reporter recently wrote, “The era of easy money fueled by rising house prices and abundant credit [is giving] way to a period in which millions of households are forced to confine their spending to their paychecks.” Think of that! What a radical idea.

The third quarter of 2008 showed the first signs of deleveraging. Household debt declined for the first time since recordkeeping began in 1952.

Crisis of Profligacy

Andrew Bacevich devotes the first third of his book, The Limits of Power, (which I have recommended before) to what he calls “The Crisis of Profligacy”. He argues that our understanding of the last of “Jefferson’s trinity” – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – has been radically reshaped over the centuries. “If you were to choose a single word to characterize [what it means to be an American in the twenty-first century], it would have to be ‘more’,” he claims. “For the majority of contemporary Americans, the essence of … the pursuit of happiness centers on a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors.”

He goes on to report that as early as “the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, astute observer of the young Republic, noted the ‘feverish ardor’ of its citizens to accumulate.”

I am the first to admit that I have not been immune to such ardor. But, I have come to believe I/we have overdone it.

Bacevich continues, “Americans, Reinhold Niebuhr once observed, ‘seek a solution for practically every problem of life in quantitative terms,’ certain that more is better.” (Note that President Obama is well-steeped in Niebuhr.)

Nocera traces the beginning of our over-indulgence to 1958 and the credit card. Bacevich argues the tipping point occurred in the late 1960s when President Johnson pursued both guns (the Vietnam War) and butter (his Great Society program). President Bush’s simultaneous pursuit of the Iraq War and massive tax cuts is only the latest example of America’s a-partisan profligacy.

“War costs money,” Franklin D. Roosevelt reminded us after Pearl Harbor. “That means taxes and bonds and bonds and taxes.”

Perhaps the financial crisis we’re currently enduring is the economic system’s way to say, “Enough is enough”. We’ve over-indulged. It’s time to restore our economic health. A time “to put aside our childish ways” (as the President put it in his inaugural address) and
enter “A New Era of Responsibility” (the title of his budget proposal).

Culture of Impatience

That brings me to my friends’ other complaint. Obama’s trying to do too much.

It seems to me that this is symptomatic of our “culture of impatience,” as others have labeled it. As a people, we are always in a hurry. Think McDonald’s or BlackBerries.

We even want our problems fixed fast. We want our recessions to be short. Hence, we as a people tend to be very shortsighted. And our governance reflects that.

Our current dilemma is the result of bad habits acquired over more than 4 decades. They won’t be fixed in 4 quarters. Recently, I read an article about altering post-operative behaviors of heart bypass patients that another friend had sent me. When considering how to change the patients’ behaviors in order to prolong their lives, research suggests that “radical, sweeping, comprehensive changes” are more effective and more sustainable then “small, incremental ones.” I think that’s a good metaphor for the approach President Obama is taking. Talking about his energy-education-health care agenda, here is what he said recently, as reported by Bob Herbert:

I am not planning based on a one-day market reaction. In fact, you can argue that a lot of the problems we’re in have to do with everybody planning based on one-day market reactions, or three-month market reactions, and as a consequence nobody was taking the long view.

My job is to help the country take the long view — to make sure that not only are we getting out of this immediate fix, but we’re not repeating the same cycle of bubble and bust over and over again; that we’re not having the same energy conversation 30 years from now that we had 30 years ago; that we’re not talking about the state of our schools in the exact same ways we were talking about them in the 1980s; and that at some point we say, “You know what? If we’re spending more money per-capita on health care than any nation on earth, then you’d think everybody would have coverage and we would see lower costs for average consumers, and we’d have better outcomes.”

Near the end of the interview, the President said that there are certain moments in history when significant change is possible.

He obviously thinks this is one of them. I agree.

We have been talking about fixing our health care system at least since the Truman administration in the mid-1940s. We have been talking about energy independence at least since the oil embargo in 1973. And, we have been promising to fix our public schools at least since “A Nation at Risk,” the famous report by a Reagan commission published in 1983.

There are those (including one of my favorites, David Brooks) who claim that President Obama should focus exclusively on ending this recession. But, President Obama understands the need to address these greater, more systemic problems, if we are to restore our economic health for the long-term, not just for the balance of his presidency. He understands that we as a society must change our bad habits and that “comprehensive change” is what’s needed now.

We must change our addiction to debt and our culture of impatience. And, we must do it

Please, as always, pass it on.


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#41 This Recession Is No Great Depression

Hello Everyone,

In January, I wrote an Obamagram entitled “Another Great Depression?” In it, I wrote,

…I am frustrated these days as commentators and politicians far and wide ominously liken the current credit crisis to the Great Depression…Not so fast. It isn’t that simple. Or that scary. I surely won’t pretend to know where we are headed, and I don’t mean to diminish the seriousness of our situation. But, I do think we need to be reticent to cry “the sky is falling”.

On Monday, the New York Times published the attached chart depicting our country’s production capacity utilization over the last century – a good indication of economic activity. Although the Times used this chart to argue that the recovery from this recession is likely to be slow (something that’s actually unknowable), I think it makes the point better than my words in January could. This recession is no Great Depression.

The current recession is best compared to the 1981-82 recession – even though that one was much more severe than what we’ve seen so far in this one. In fact, the current one looks similar to a number of them since World War II. But, most importantly, this one pales by comparison to the Great Depression – or even the two recessions that preceded it.

Point made.

Please pass it along.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: NYT Graph


adobe pdf file Attachment: Economy Falling Years Behind Full Speed

#42 No Ordinary Time – Thinking Strategically

Hello Everyone,

In this dawning age of Twitter, those of us trying to penetrate the superficial babbling about President Obama’s first 100 days in office have some serious reading to do. More than “140 characters” worth.

While vouching for him as a presidential candidate in Obamagrams during the campaign, I argued that Barack Obama’s greatest attributes are his “intellect, temperament and world view.” I also likened him to some combination of “JFK, RFK and Ronald Reagan.”

Three months into his presidency, I hold those opinions even more strongly. But, I underestimated his sheer competence. The breadth and depth of the man’s command of the issues is breathtaking. And, we are now seeing ample evidence that, unlike most American politicians, he is thinking strategically.

President Obama gave a major economic address at Georgetown University on April 15 that received very little press coverage. It was no ordinary political speech. Someone said he sounded like an economics professor. David Brooks called it a “small masterpiece.”

That speech is the first attachment. If you are serious about understanding our current dilemma and this president’s strategic response to it, I implore you to read it in its entity.

President Obama has concluded that this is, to borrow a phrase, no ordinary time. That this is no ordinary recession. “This recession was not caused by a normal downturn in a business cycle. It was caused by a perfect storm of irresponsibility and poor decision-making that stretched from Wall Street to Washington to Main Street.” We are all culpable.

In the Georgetown speech, he tried to explain how we got into this mess and why his administration has taken “action that has been unprecedented in both its scale and its speed.” He went on, “I know that some have accused us of taking on too much at once. Others believe we haven’t done enough… I want every American to know that each action we take and each policy we pursue is driven by a larger vision of America’s future”. As a society, we must now “save and invest.” And think long term.

Unlike most of his predecessors, this president is trying to think and act strategically. No more Greenspan-like quick fixes. At Georgetown, the President said, “I’ve talked a lot about the fundamental weaknesses in our economy that led us to this day of reckoning. But we also arrived here because of a fundamental weakness in our political system. For too long, too many in Washington put off hard decisions for some other time on some other day…There is also an impatience [remember the ‘culture of impatience’ I’ve written about] that characterizes this town…This can’t be one of those times.”

I have also attached a remarkable companion piece. In it, I have extracted major portions of an extraordinarily long and highly informative letter to the shareholders of JPMorgan Chase from its thoughtful Chairman and CEO, Jamie Dimon. It explains in considerable detail and with remarkable candor how the financial sector helped cause our current problems and what needs to be done about it. On both points, he largely validates the President’s thinking. For the serious observer, it is another must read.

Once you have read these two pieces, I think you’ll see why President Obama, in these extraordinary times, is thinking strategically and leading for the long term. As David Axelrod said recently, “We are on a journey…and the journey’s just begun.”

Please pass it along.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: President Obama’s speech on the economy at Georgetown University on April 15, 2009


adobe pdf file Attachment: The Gathering Storm Arrived with a Vengeance

#43 A “new foundation”

Hello Everyone,

Before I begin, let me alert you to a new, very modest website I have created as a repository for the Obamagrams I have written since the primary campaign began in February 2007. There are 43 in all, so far. In future Obamagrams, I will from time-totime provide links back to them. The URL of the new site, which also includes my bio, is http://obamagrams.com.

As my long-time readers know, during the campaign I struggled to understand what was really happening, not just what the media was reporting. Now, I am trying to get my mind around what is really happening as our economy is being re-structured in fundamental ways. What is the Obama Administration trying to do and why?

I am starting to focus on two words, “new foundation,” that President Obama has been using for awhile now. They could be trivialized as a slogan or mistakenly likened to New Deal and New Frontier or Great Society and Ownership Society. But I think that President Obama is using them in lower case, more as an organizing construct than as a slogan. The idea is no less grand – just not grandiose, in keeping with his temperament.

It can be argued that the weak foundation that underlies our current economy was started to be laid over four decades ago. Since then, that foundation has been rocked by repeated bubbles or other shocks – oil and inflation, junk bonds and S&Ls, technology and dotcoms, housing, and financial “innovations.” Our current mess is not simply a product of sub-prime lending. And, it has been a long time in the making.

It seems as though Barack Obama was aware of the shaky foundation even before he started to campaign for the presidency and well before the “credit crisis” surfaced.

In Audacity of Hope, published in 2006, he wrote of the need to shore up that foundation. “Let’s start with those investments that can make America more competitive in the global economy: investments in education, science and technology, and energy independence.” And, he wrote at length about the need to fix our “broken” health care system.

Then, in his inaugural address in January, he said, “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility.” He went on to use – in his characteristically understated way – those two words that may come to define his presidency. “And we will act, not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth.”

Most recently, in April, in his major speech at Georgetown University on America’s economic challenges and his comprehensive proposals to respond to them, President Obama said “We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity — a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest…”

I urge you to read that important speech in its entirety if you want to better understand how the President is thinking. I wrote about it in an Obamagram in April, entitled “No Ordinary Time – Thinking Strategically.” The following link will take you to that section on the new website (see item 6a for the Obamagram and item 6b for the speech): http://obamagrams.com/group-5/no-ordinary-time-%e2%80%93-thinking-strategically/.

Then, last month, the President signed into law major new protections for credit card borrowers.

I think that that legislation and the President’s previous writings and speeches about our economic foundation are profoundly connected in ways that few have discussed directly. Credit cards were perhaps the cornerstones of the old foundation which led to the “era of
borrow and spend” that got out of hand.

Therefore, credit cards are both a culprit and a symbol. A symbol of the need for a new era of personal responsibility and a sounder foundation. Rethinking our individual use of and relationship to credit cards will be critical first steps in that rebuilding.

I have written before about America’s addiction to debt (see item 4, “Culture of Addiction and Impatience” at: http://obamagrams.com/group-5/culture-of-addiction-and-impatience/. I think the first step in getting off that wagon is to conceptually eliminate the word “credit” from “credit card.”

What we currently call credit cards were invented in the 1950s. Joe Nocera is a business columnist for the New York Times, as many of you know. His award-winning book, A Piece of the Action: How the Middle Class Joined the Money Class, was published 15 years ago, long before our current predicament. In it, he claims that the introduction of the credit card ushered in a new era of personal finance “when a simple, ordered, highly regulated world began to evolve… into an immensely complicated universe.”

Nocera writes about the democratization of the financial markets over the last four decades. The middle class, and even the working class, gained access to financial markets and new financial instruments – credit cards, mutual funds, cash management accounts, IRAs, 401ks, and exotic mortgages. “Democracy always comes at some price. Even financial democracy.”

Nocera goes on to say that there has been an “astonishing transformation of the financial habits of the middle class.” A broad set of new habits “have resulted from Americans having to take charge of their financial lives, (including) the way we borrow, the way we save, even the way we think about money.”

But, no preparations had been made for this “money revolution,” as Nocera calls it. The vast majority of we Americans are financially illiterate, or close to it. We are now confronted with a vast array of increasingly complicated financial products. Yet, most of us are unprepared to deal with them.

Credit cards were the precursors of bigger things to come. We weren’t prepared to handle the credit being sold in the guise of convenience. They were the first in a long line of new increasingly addictive means to acquire a dangerous debt habit. Much like the progression from pot to heroin.

The forerunner of the “credit card” was the “charge card”, issued in the early 1950s by Diners Club. It was the first card “that could be used in more than one establishment,” according to Nocera. “Its appeal was convenience rather than credit, which it did not offer. Customers were expected to pay their bills in full at the end of each month.”

“By the mid-1950s, there were at least a dozen attempts to create an all-purpose credit card.” It would offer the first open line of credit to the American consumer – where, unlike the simple charge card, the holder wasn’t expected to pay off the balance at the end of every month. Indeed, providing easy access to credit was its intended purpose as its name clearly indicates. Open lines of credit were previously available only to corporate borrowers. Now with its advent, “consumer credit was [starting to spill] out in every direction,” per Nocera.

In 1958, Bank of America made the first mass mailing of credit cards – 60,000 of them – to the citizens of Fresno, California. A new era had begun.

Of course, consumer credit was nothing new in America. Sears had been selling sewing machines and refrigerators on credit for generations. But, generally speaking, each such purchase was financed by a discrete loan, with fixed installments payable over a fixed period of time.

“Well into the 1950s and beyond, the [Great] Depression remained the nation’s dominant economic memory…” according to Nocera. “The ethos of thrift was one natural result of the Depression experience. So was an aversion to risk… [and] the [country had a] deep and abiding suspicion about the power of bankers.” Our collective memory, economic and otherwise, fades with the passing of time. But, it is currently being refreshed with a vengeance with regard to both risk and bankers.

In order to start breaking our bad debt habits, I think we should all stop thinking of credit cards as credit cards and begin thinking of them as convenience cards.

Big, long-lasting items (like houses and cars) can responsibly be financed with loans of appropriate size and finite duration which have been arranged for each such purchase. We all should under-spend (i.e., save) in order to manage our debt addiction. We should assiduously avoid using debt to buy expendable items — like vacations, flat screen TVs, iPhones, and dinners out.

This is the only way for our society to start to deal with its pervasive addiction to debt.

Here’s an irony — or a dirty little secret — in all of this. The 60% of Americans who borrow using their credit cards are subsidizing those of us who don’t.

I have only one convenience (credit) card. I never use its credit feature. I pay no fee to use it. I don’t even pay for the “float” I use. The float is the interest-free loan that those of us who carry no credit balances gets from the card issuer from the time of each purchase to the end of the monthly billing cycle. Those card holders who use them as credit cards – perpetually rolling over balances and paying usurious interest – actually subsidize my free float.

Here’s another little secret. I have read that about 80% of consumers don’t realize that, if you carry a debt balance, you not only don’t get float for free, but you immediately begin accruing interest for reach new purchase made.

Furthering the irony, Nocera notes that, “One of the great misconceptions people used to have about credit cards is that, by paying in full at the end of each month, they were acting as ‘good customers.’ But bankers never wanted them to pay in full; for a bank, that defeated the whole purpose of credit cards, which was to create debt. Bankers had a word for people [like me] who paid off their balances each month: freeloaders.”

There is another much larger irony in this entire discussion of our debt addiction. The government needs to borrow heavily now to provide a bridge to a sounder financial future for the country. Think of imbalanced budgets as a form of methadone to get us off of our heroin addiction.

David Brooks, as he frequently does, sums up our situation well, “We [have] moved from the Age of Leverage to the Great Unwinding. For about a generation, the U.S. surfed on a growing wave of debt… This rise in debt fueled a consumption binge… The leverage wave crashed last fall… And now attention turns to the task of the next decade: slowly unwinding the debt that built up over the past generation.”

Eschewing credit card debt is the best place to start in building a new foundation for the American economy.

Please, as always, pass it on.


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#44 Video Taped Recollections of My “View from the Front Lines”

Hello Everyone,

During my 45th Amherst College reunion, two classmates, Terry Segal and Jesse Brill, and I talked about our front line experiences during the presidential primary and general elections.

If you click on this link, you will be able to watch our panel presentation: https://www.amherst.edu/alumni/events/reunion/multimedia/2009/how_obama_won/

During the first 2 ½ minutes, Terry tells about going to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, his fifth, having never heard of Barack Obama, and how he was blown away by Obama’s speech.

My principal part follows for the next 20 minutes, with Jesse then talking about his extensive work to combat excessive executive compensation. Q&A follows.

Two attachments to this email include the two documents I reference in my presentation. I should also point out that, near the end of my initial remarks, I make some observations about the latter stages of the campaign, saying “Pledged Delegates”, when I mean “Super Delegates”. That soon becomes clearer.

I hope you enjoy this summary of the campaign, delivered in a different format.

Please, as always, pass it along.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: Learning the Process – Chap. #1 – “Baseball Rules”


adobe pdf file Attachment: Delegate Count

#45 Health INSURANCE Reform

Hello Everyone,

After a long hesitation, I think it is time to weigh in on what has been mistakenly called the “health care” debate.

I know enough about health care to be dangerous. My mother and a couple of aunts were nurses. I served three years as an officer in the hospital administration section of the Army, working on bringing information technology to its largest hospitals. When I was a Merrill Lynch investment banker, two of the country’s largest hospital supply companies were clients. I also worked with some medical device manufacturers. Our daughter-in-law is a fellowship-trained radiologist. I have been a beneficiary of both government and private-sector health insurance provided by the Army, Merrill Lynch, and now Medicare. And, I’m eligible for Veteran’s Administration benefits, too.

But this is a vast topic, and I’m no expert. At an estimated 16% of GDP, healthcare spending is an enormous subject that defies easy comprehension. It is also emotion-laden. So, I will only attempt to shed some modest light on a few aspects of the current debate in this first of what may be a handful of installments.

The Debate and the President

It seems to be that much of the debate so far, and the media coverage of it, have been focused on the entertaining aspects of the political process, with surprisingly little on the substance of the issues.

The bills drafted so far have been largely about health insurance reform, not health care reform, which would involve fundamentally changing the delivery system as well. That system will continue to be overwhelmingly in the private-sector hands of doctors and hospitals.

Despite declining poll numbers (my long time readers know my skepticism about the validity of polls), my faith in President Obama’s capabilities, temperament, moderation, and effectiveness is unwavering.

I have quoted Doris Kerns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals many times before. In the latter stages of the book, she talks about President Lincoln’s attempts to negotiate peace with representatives of the Confederacy, quoting Harper’s Weekly:

“Indeed, nothing but the foolish assumption of four years ago, that Mr. Lincoln was unfit for his office,” could explain the fatuous predictions that he would “flinch and falter” before the Southern delegates…We venture to say that there is no man in our history who has shown a more felicitous combination of temperament, conviction, and ability to grapple with a complication …than Abraham Lincoln.”

It is worthwhile to recall how the country repeatedly underestimated Lincoln’s capabilities only to see them fully displayed in the end. Likewise, I believe that we will see President Obama’s “felicitous combination of temperament, conviction, and ability to grapple with complication” on full display as this process proceeds.

As I have written in an earlier Obamagram, from time to time during the campaign, candidate Obama was getting “flak from all sides” (see item 2, “Flak from All Sides – 7-16-08” at: http://obamagrams.com/category/group-4/). That is because he is more measured and moderate than the left wing of the Democratic Party would like and more liberal than most Republicans would like. It’s happening again now, and I think that’s a good sign.

This debate also reminds me of a favorite quote from Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (published in 1513) about the difficulty of achieving change:

And one should bear in mind that there is nothing more difficult to execute, nor more dubious of success, nor more dangerous to administer than to introduce a new order of things; for he who introduces it has all those who profit from the old order as his enemies, and he has only lukewarm allies in all those who might profit from the new. This lukewarmness partly stems from fear of their adversaries…and partly from the skepticism of men, who do not truly believe in new things unless they have actually had personal experience of them. Therefore, it happens that whenever those who are enemies have the chance to attack, they do so enthusiastically, whereas those others defend hesitantly…

It also brings to mind Daniel Goleman’s interpretation of neurological research in his book Emotional Intelligence:

In humans the amygdala…is an almond-shaped cluster of interconnected structures perched above the brainstem…The amygdala is the specialist for emotional matters…Incoming signals from the senses let the amygdala scan every experience for trouble. This puts the amygdala in a powerful post in mental life, something like a psychological sentinel, challenging every situation, every perception, with but one kind of question in mind, the most primitive: “Is this something I hate” That hurts me” Something I fear”” If so—if the movement at hand somehow draws a “Yes”—the amygdala reacts instantaneously, like a neural tripwire, telegraphing a message of crisis to all parts of the brain…The amygdala’s extensive web of neural connections allows it, during an emotional emergency, to capture and drive much of the rest of the brain—including the rational mind [emphasis added].

Goleman calls this “amygdala high jacking” – when primitive fears permit the emotions to override reason. Like “road rage”. Sometimes when people want desperately to win an argument, they resort to fear tactics. Think “death panel” lies now or scary “Harry and Louise” commercials in 1993. If they can activate your amygdala, it will override the rational parts of your brain.

Looking it up

One other observation I have made in past Obamagrams involved my continuing dismay at voters’ reluctance to “look it up”. That is, their unwillingness to find and read primary source documents in order to come to their own fully-informed judgments. Due to lack of time or inclination, we mostly rely solely on the opinions of others, and are, therefore, easily manipulated. When I write these essays, I try to rely on original documents whenever possible, as I will below.

In this instance, I will admit to my own frustrations in trying to find the proposed legislation. Evidently, there have been a number of bills introduced in the House of Representatives, but there have been no bills formally introduced in the Senate. No bills have been brought to the floor of either chamber for a vote.

While I am still unclear about what other bills are in committee in the House, the tension in the air seems to be focused on HR 3200. If you want to look it up yourself (which I encourage you to do), go to http://thomas.loc.gov/ . Enter HR 3200 in the box under “Search Bill Summary & Status”, click on the “Bill Number” button and click on “Search”. I have found the best way to read this document is to click on “Text of the Legislation”, then click on the “Printer Friendly Display” tab, but there are a variety of other ways to peruse the bill on that site.

The first thing that will jump out at you is that the bill is 478 pages long, not the “1000 pages” waved in front of opponents to inflame them. (Of course, the number of pages depends upon margins and font size.) To a Tweeting public that is unlikely to wade into Goodwin’s 750-page Team of Rivals, this bill may seem daunting. But, most major legislation is.

This is health INSURANCE reform

I will get into more details in subsequent Obamagrams, but let’s begin with two critical observations.

First, the President and Congress are proposing health insurance reform, not comprehensive health care reform.

I have included as the first attachment what amounts to the table of contents for HR 3200. As you will see, the bill is divided into three sections (Divisions A, B, and C). Over 80% of the document focuses directly on health insurance reform. Division A, which accounts for about 22% of the bill, concerns tightening private health insurance standards and protections, much like those provided by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Food and Drug Administration. The recent credit card law is another good precedent. Division B, which accounts for about 60% of the bill, pertains to changes in

Medicare and Medicaid, the wildly popular single-payer government insurance programs for the elderly and the indigent.

Division C is the remaining 20% of the bill. It focuses on public health and workforce development. Hardly “health care overhaul.”

If you take a few minutes to look at the website and/or the first attachment, you will likely agree with me – this bill is not about health care reform – it is overwhelmingly about health insurance reform. Much less scary and much more difficult to demagogue. Unless you simply want to see this president fail.

Sarah Palin’s “death panel” lies

I will end this first installment with a second critical observation. Naysayers are using fear tactics to stop any and all reform. The prime example is the incredible lies being circulated about non-existent “death panels.” The actual text contained in HR 3200 pertaining to “Advanced Care Planning Consultation” is included as the second attachment. That five-page provision, originally proposed by a Republican Congressman in the recent past, is thoughtful and anything but invasive.

We Americans are reluctant to discuss what we deem to be highly sensitive topics – including sex or personal finances – or how to care for ourselves and our loved ones as we near the ends of our lives. Most of us don’t want to even think about it.

Let me personalize this a bit. My family finds itself increasingly in “advanced care planning” conversations these days. Two weeks ago, my 93-year-old father went into cardiac arrest. Because of the alertness of my stepmother, good medical care paid for by Medicare insurance, and incredible resiliency, Dad is recovering.

My father and stepmother are fortunate enough to live in a very nice continuous care retirement community in Florida. That was the first step we collectively took several years ago to do advanced care planning. The next step was to work with their family physician, lawyers, and other health care workers to write living wills and all of the other advanced directives covered by the bill. While these are never easy conversations to have or plans to make, I have come to appreciate how important thoughtful planning is for this stage of life, just like it is for other, seemingly happier, stages – like marriage, family, and college.

Spend a few minutes reading the second attachment. You will readily see how thoughtful this provision is and how wrongheaded those who demagogue it are. Moreover, I challenge you to find any hint of government intervention in this process other than proposing health insurance coverage to pay for counseling and document preparation should people choose to do such planning and proposing some innocuous standards to promote clarity and consistency.

The exclusion of insurance coverage for this type of consultation from the bills would neither surprise me nor weaken these insurance reform efforts to any meaningful extent. And, it would remove an easy target for the fear mongers who are trying to activate your amygdala.

Prescriptive Leadership

In my view, the President has been wise to let the Congress take the lead in drafting legislation, as uncomfortable as that must have been for him. I’m sure that he knew it would be so.

I suspect that starting with his speech to the Joint Session, he will become substantially more prescriptive. I appreciate the irony in the usage of that term in this situation. And, the irony that many in Congress are now clamoring for him to be prescriptive even though they would have mightily resisted him if he had tried to be so at the outset.

That’s probably enough for now. I am confident that President Obama will succeed in shaping significant health insurance change by the end of the year. As the debate proceeds over the coming days and weeks, and as I study the topic more thoroughly, I will no doubt be back in touch.

Please, as always, pass it along.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009


adobe pdf file Attachment: America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009 Sec 1233

#46 Expectations

Hello Everyone,

Last week marked the first anniversary of Barack Obama’s historic electoral victory.

Since I’ve had the audacity to write these commentaries, folks now regularly ask me “How’s he doing?” Remembering that President Obama has been in office less than ten months, my considered response is “Even better than I expected.” Let me explain.


That is a loaded word – expectations.

During the decades I was an investment banker, “earnings expectations” for public companies took on increasing importance to the point of absurdity. Today, if a company misses analysts’ earnings per share expectations by a mere penny, its shares usually get clobbered.

Same thing in politics. Remember the New Hampshire primary, which came only 5 days after the Iowa caucuses?

In Iowa, Obama got an estimated 52% of caucus-goers, to Sen. Clinton’s 32%, but, more importantly, he almost doubled her Pledged Delegate take, 25 to 14. After this astounding win, expectations of him soared in New Hampshire. When Sen. Clinton eked out a 2 point popular vote margin (39% to 37%), it was hailed as a huge upset, temporarily stopping Obama’s momentum. Expectations. (To this day, no one even noticed that they received an equal number of Pledged Delegates – 9 a piece – which was, after all, the metric that mattered).

Expectations for the President

We’re seeing the often distorting power of expectations come into play again now that Obama is president.

In order to get some perspective on how he’s doing compared to my expectations, I’ve taken my own advice and “looked up” what I had written about Obama during the campaign.

As is my wont, let me begin at the beginning. My wife, Penny Sebring, and I had lunch alone with Obama in July 2003 to get to know him as he was planning a run for the U.S. Senate. We came away thinking “he’s too good to be true.” Too smart, too articulate, too reflective and too analytical to be a politician.

After doing extensive due diligence and after his first year in the Senate, I came to believe his “intellect, temperament, and worldview” made him suitable for the presidency. It seemed like his emotional intelligence – most particularly his empathy and self- knowledge – were rare among politicians. Here’s what I wrote in February 2007 just before he announced his candidacy: “I am committed to getting him nominated and elected (because he) is deliberative and reflective, not ideological.”

Looking at President Obama’s performance in office so far, I think I got what I expected – and maybe even more.

True to form, he has approached the job with an unusually high degree of intelligence, a calm demeanor, and a sophisticated and nuanced worldview.

Obama knew he would inherit two wars were he to win the presidency. And, he espoused an ambitious agenda topped by health care, energy-climate change, and education during the campaign. But, it wasn’t until well into the general election campaign that it became apparent that an existential economic crisis would demand his attention immediately after the election, delaying and competing with his own agenda.

Soon after taking office earlier this year, the new President was soundly scolded for trying “to do too much.” When he was inconveniently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, we were told that he hadn’t yet “accomplished anything.”

The way I see it, the President has made considerable progress on the economy and health insurance reform, while putting in motion many of his other initiatives.

Little has been written about how the President’s steady hand and intellectual acuity helped to steer us clear of the economic shoals.

Amidst the inane accusations of socialism, the President has gotten precious little credit for this major accomplishment. Such is our abiding faith in our capitalistic system’s resilience. We just expect – even demand – that it quickly snap back to “normalcy” after every setback and burst bubble.

But as one who subscribes to the school of behavioral economics (rationality tempered by psychology), I believe that Obama’s command of the subject and reliably calm sense of self-assurance were of immeasurable import during that crisis. As I’ve written, the markets are a “con game” – they depend enormously on confidence. That is what this President has helped to provide. Much like President Reagan did over 25 years ago.

I have also written about what some have called America’s “culture of impatience.” It was in full view this summer as the President got “flak from all sides” and critics carped about his inability to “close the deal” on health insurance reform. They criticized him for not taking more leadership – read control – of the process. The teabaggers had a field day (actually a month of them) in August.

But, now a bill has actually been passed by the House – a feat never before accomplished in over six decades of trying, through 11 administrations.

Not only does this accomplishment provide a partial answer to the “What has he done?” question. It also tells us much about our still new President. To me, his approach speaks volumes about his “intellect and temperament.”

He was smart enough to understand the complexities of the health insurance issue and savvy enough to know that he couldn’t control the process from beginning to end. He was calm and self-assured enough to be patient with the process – even after the Nobel announcement ratcheted up the cacophony from the culture carriers of impatience.

For me, this exercise so far has also demonstrated that, unlike most of us, this President understands that the surest route between two points is not always a straight line.

True, too, of his deliberations about Afghanistan. Amid flak from the trigger happy, American exceptionalists, and his own party’s left wing, he stands his ground and takes his time. He is as deliberative as I expected.

Many in the President’s party have been impatient with the pace of Guantanamo’s closing and ending “don’t ask, don’t tell.” This pragmatic politician with uncanny calmness will not be rushed, no matter the source of the pressure.

So, as I look back to compare what I expected with what we’re getting, I am pleased. Obama has been true to form. He’s made “no sudden moves,” borrowing a phrase from Dreams from My Father. He has demonstrated a capacity to master an astonishing array of highly complex subjects beyond what I could have imagined and the patience and pragmatism to make progress on his audacious goals.

Expectations for the rest of us

Now that I’ve offered you my opinion about President Obama’s performance, for what it’s worth, let me offer an opinion about what we should expect of ourselves, for what that’s worth.

Let me begin with a little story. On Sunday, I was being driven home from the airport by a wonderful man whose services I have enjoyed for many years and who has, unfortunately, endured many health challenges.

During the ride, I asked him about health insurance reform in light of the unprecedented House vote the night before. He favored reform, even though he has had good experience with his own insurance company. But, he said one thing bothered him – the proposal to establish “death panels.”

Although I think my characterization of such a claim as a bold-faced lie intended to sew fear was accepted, I am astounded that such an outlandish lie has such an extended life.

The lesson here is clear.

The election of Barack Obama was an historic accomplishment. But, the responsibilities of those of us who supported him, and, dare say, even those who didn’t, didn’t end on Nov. 4, 2008.

There are expectations of us, too. As American citizens, and citizens of the world. This is as much a reminder to me as it is to all of you.

Professor friends of ours have written two relevant books: Talking to Strangers (Danielle Allen, who has written Obamagrams, too) and Talking Together (Fay Cook and colleagues). I would argue that we should expect ourselves to remain engaged in the work of our government. After all, our Constitution begins with “We the People,” doesn’t it?

We can’t expect the President to do it all for us. We can’t simply outsource it to him and stand on the sidelines, carping. We need to help him build a “new foundation” based on personal and civic responsibility.

We need to be as alert, informed, and active as we were during the campaign regardless of which candidate we supported.

We should not complain about government deficits and debt until our own balance sheets are repaired. Until we start, once again, to live within our own means. Until we pay off our credit cards and home equity loans. Until we deal with our own “addiction to debt.”

We should work to be accurately informed. And then, we should keep talking – calmly, rationally, and respectfully – to everyone we encounter about the issue of the day, trying to be constructive toward our President and our legislators, even when we disagree with them.

We should remind friends and strangers alike that the likes of Limbaugh, O’Reilly, and Beck, on the right, and Olbermann and Maddow, on the left, are not in the news business. Hats off to CNN for getting rid of Lou Dobbs. They’re on in prime time. They’re in the entertainment business. Like professional wrestling. Exaggerations and lies are good for ratings. We should shoot down lies as soon as we hear them, before they become part of the lexicon. Just as we should stop racist jokes before they spread further.

That’s what all of us should seek to do every day. Talk to neighbors and colleagues. Insist on the truth. Clarify as we can, reassure, and urge patience. We need not be expert on every issue or debate in detail. Simply tell them that we trust and support our President.

Remember the baseball analogy I used last year to explain the Democratic primary process? Well, we’re in a different ballgame now. Because it’s the President’s chosen sport, let’s say we’re playing basketball. Olympic basketball. We’re playing for Team USA now, although we play for different teams during the regular season. We’re playing for our national team for the four (or eight) rounds of the Olympic tournament. We’re nearing the end of the first round.

We need to keep our heads in the game. Be alert. Think about our strategy and know the game plan. Constantly talk to our teammates and back them up even when we disagree with their shot selection or when they make a mistake. Respect our teammates. Have confidence in
them. Be constructive in our criticism. Have a running conversation with the fans in the bleachers. This is our game to win or lose. Be patient and let the game come to us. Above all else, remember that citizenship is a team sport.

This is not to suggest that we are in a post-partisan world. Far from it. Remember during the primary when Obama expressed his admiration for Ronald Reagan – correctly in my view – and was criticized for it? Independently, I recall writing that I thought Obama was an amalgam of “JFK, RFK and Ronald Reagan.” I thought that Reagan’s optimism, assuring manner, and verbal skills were just what the country needed. As we celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I am grateful to him. And, in this time of economic stress, I remember admiring his courage to not interfere with Paul Volcker’s successful war on inflation, driving the unemployment rate in 1982 up to nearly 11% in the process.

Neither party has a monopoly on good leadership. But, as the saying goes, we only have one president at a time. So, we should look for ways to support this president, not obstruct him.
Note: All of my Obamagrams are available at http://obamagrams.com/ or you can find me on Facebook as “Chuck Lewis” with a link to that site.

Please pass it on.


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#47 Afghanistan Speech and Presidential Approval Ratings

Hello Everyone,

I’ll touch on two topics this time.

Afghanistan Speech

I think President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan was pure Obama – balanced, complicated, nuanced. No demagoguery, rather: “…al Qaeda – a group of extremists who have distorted and defiled Islam…” Not “Islamic extremists.” Focused on al Qaeda (mentioned over 20 times), not exporting democracy or nation building. The latter’s only mention: “…the nation I’m most interested in building is our own.” I liked his Eisenhower quotation about national security: “Each proposal must be weighed in light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain a balance in and among national programs.” Balance. Recognition of our “limits of power” as Bacevich would have it.

This President continues to impress me, and I continue to trust his judgment. He is, once again, getting “flak from all sides” – a good sign in my opinion. As David Brooks, my favorite conservative commentator, wrote the day before the speech:

President Obama faces such a devilishly complex set of constraints that the policy he announces will be partially unsatisfying to every American and to every member of his administration…Nonetheless, my impression, pre-speech, is that Obama has negotiated these constraints in a serious manner, and improved some of his options – for example, by accelerating troop deployments. He has not been enthusiastic about expanding the U.S. role in Afghanistan, but he has not evaded his responsibility as commander in chief, and he’s taking brave political risks.

And, Brooks wrote today:

The Obama White House revolves around a culture of debate. He leads long, analytic discussions…he seems to spend a lot of time coaxing people along [think health insurance reform]. His governing style, in short, is biased toward complexity…we should be glad that he is governing the way he is… [we should] embrace the complexity. Learn to live with dispassion. (See first attachment).

Brooks has once again captured the essence of the man I knew before he was president and why I trust his judgment now.

Presidential Approval Ratings

Much attention has been paid to President Obama’s so-called “declining approval ratings”. You may recall I have written many times that I believe Obama shares some attributes with presidents Kennedy and Reagan, as well as Robert Kennedy.

Reagan was arguably the most influential Republican president of the last one hundred years. To get some perspective on approval ratings, I thought I’d follow my own admonition to “look it up” and see what the press was saying about him in November 1981, about a year after his election. Here are some quotes, all from the New York Times archives.

In every new Administration there comes a time, after the initial policies have been set out, when so much skepticism and political resistance develops that the president must aggressively defend the credibility of his program and his own leadership. (Hedrick Smith, November 11, 1981)

…the Reagan magic – his ability to charm journalists and politicians – has begun to wear thin. More and more people are looking past the smile and worrying about the substance of issues. And more and more are asking whether the President is able to deal with substance… (Anthony Lewis, November 16, 1981)

Ronald Reagan appears to be falling victim to dashed expectations [“expectations” was the subject of my last Obamagram]…Mr. Reagan came home from his August vacation to witness a September [1981, like 2008] in which “economic activity fell off a cliff,” in the phrase of Edward Yardeni, an economist for E.F. Hutton. “The magnitude of the drop,” he added, “was larger than anyone anticipated.” That could as well have been said of the unwarranted expectations [that word again] the President had created… (Tom Wicker, November 17, 1981)

President Reagan’s popularity has again slipped a little, according to the Gallup Poll, but stands almost exactly where President Carter’s stood four years ago. In a national poll conducted from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2, 53 percent of Americans of voting age said they approved of how Mr. Reagan was handling his job as President. (NYT, November 19, 1981) [President Obama’s rating was 50% according to the Gallup Poll taken Nov. 5-8, 2009.]

Isn’t the commentary in 1981 about this now iconic Republican president strikingly similar to the current rhetoric about the new Democratic president?

Now, look at the graphs of the Gallup Polls’ presidential approval ratings in the second attachment. Notice in both the top and bottom graphs how closely Reagan and Obama track, especially after the first sixty days or so.

Why are they so similar? While that is unknowable, one might speculate that it has a good deal to do with the similar economic challenges they inherited. Reagan was confronted with raging inflation, followed by a deepening recession. The unemployment rate in November 1981 was 8.3%. Obama took office following the bursting of a gigantic bubble, with a current unemployment rate at 10.0%.

It is worth noting that President Reagan’s ratings hit a low point (35%) in January 1983, the month after the unemployment rate hit a peak of 10.8%, still the highest since the Great Depression.

It is similarly interesting to know that President Kennedy’s approval ratings were as high as 83% and never got below 56%, despite the Bay of Pigs fiasco and his tiff with U.S. Steel. Of course, the employment rate during his tenure never exceeded 7.1% and was as low as 5.4%.

These comparisons and correlations are worth keeping in mind when we hear breathless reports about our current president’s “declining approval ratings.”

Please pass it on. Back issues are available at http://obamagrams.com.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: The Analytic Mode


adobe pdf file Attachment: Presidential Approval Tracker

#48 Sorry, but It’s Complicated

Hello Everyone,

As those of you who have been receiving these musings over the past two plus years may have noticed, their frequency has declined since Barack Obama took office. That, in itself, is telling. It’s hard to maintain the intensity of a campaign. It’s hard to be positive. It’s easier to be critical, to find fault. To blame. Counter narratives take hold.

I remain convinced that this president is the right man at the right time. Because, in a word, things are complicated. And President Obama is supremely suited to handle complication.

Since the election, I have increasingly tuned out the media. I have come to recognize the obvious – the shorter the deadline or more frequent the utterance, the less thoughtful it is. The talking heads on “cable news” or “talk radio” cannot possibly have given much consideration to their “instant analysis” – an oxymoron if there ever was one. The quality of instant coffee.

This was driven home for me as my wife, Penny Bender Sebring, and I have experienced the stir caused by a book that was released last month. It was written by Penny and her colleagues from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. You may remember I used this forum to shamelessly shill for it at the time of its publication.

Organizing Schools for Improvement was the product of fifteen years of research on Chicago Public Schools. It took several years to write. Its first, and most generalizable, lesson for me is that it takes the ability to assemble and the time and expertise to analyze evidence in order to draw meaningful conclusions. The second, but more specific, lesson is that there are no silver bullets for improving urban schools because it is a very complicated task. The book identifies “5 essential supports” – that are themselves complex that are requisite for improvement.

Which leads me back to President Obama as he confronts the nation’s many challenges. We all must remember – things are complicated. And, there are no silver bullets.

But, we Americans seem to have little interest in grappling with complex problems and even less patience for seriously trying. We seem to want simple answers and quick fixes. I’ve written before about our “culture of impatience” (Obamagram dated 3-12-09) which is now on full display.

These realizations are the primary reason I supported President Obama and still do with equal conviction. He is intellectually capable of dealing with conditions of complexity, nuance, and ambiguity and temperamentally disposed to being appropriately patient. The impetuous see “differing”, I see diligence.

Radical extremism, climate change, energy independence, health care, fiscal deficits, education, and financial regulatory reform, to name a few. These are immensely intricate problems that need sober consideration and long-term solutions. I can think of no one better able to tackle them then our President.

I have also become more aware of a tendency toward hysteria in the media. And, an “absence of proportion” as Steve Edwards recently pointed out. He is the program director at Chicago Public Radio and an Amherst classmate of our son.

Fox has perverted the seemingly noble phrase “fair and balanced” as has the Microsoft/NBC channel known as MSNBC. Even CNN and NPR are not immune. When discussing climate change, for instance, the media airs both sides. But, as snow buries D.C. and climate change skeptics claim it as proof of their position, the media fails to remind us that the “great preponderance” (or some such characterization) of peer-reviewed scientific research has concluded that the earth is warming in part due to man-made factors. Simplicity. Little sense of proportion.

Hourly or daily commentators also have confused simple and frequently superficial correlation with more difficult to prove causation. Something that my sociology and economist friends at the University of Chicago constantly give warning to. Correlation (never called that by the media) is easy to quickly observe; causation requires more evidence, analysis, rigor, and time.

Speaking of social scientists, I attended a presentation last December on the causes of the hyperbolically-described “Great Recession” which was illustrative of my basic point.

The attached presentation was made by economist Robert E. Lucas, Jr., a Nobel laureate at the University of Chicago (of which I’m proud to be a trustee, as many of you know, and where Penny and I spend a disproportionate share of our time). As far as I can tell, he is not a politically-oriented economist like my friend and classmate Joe Stiglitz. While his displays alone cannot do justice to his presentation, and I can’t pretend to either, I’m sure you’ll get his drift.

Despite the simplistic search for the guilty – sub-prime mortgages, greedy bankers and all the rest – Prof. Lucas makes the case that the lynchpin of our financial regulatory system worked admirably for decades after its advent during the Depression. But, for reasons that probably can be traced to the high-inflation period of the 1970’s, that regulatory regime finally proved inadequate over 70 years after the Depression. (You may recall that I suggested that we may be able to trace the origins of our current situation back to the 1950’s in Obamagrams dated 3/12/09 and 6/17/09). This is not simply a George Bush or Barack Obama problem.

The financial system’s ultimate vulnerability could have been triggered by a number of events at various times along the way; it just happens that the mortgage bubble (or more broadly, pervasive and excessive use of leverage throughout the system as discussed in the Obamagram dated 3/12/09) precipitated the crisis.

Prof. Lucas goes on to say that the evidence indicates that the Bush and Obama administrations, the Federal Reserve, and others in government largely reacted sensibly and avoided a calamity. His analysis also points to what we must now do to update our regulatory framework to reduce the probability that there will be a recurrence in the foreseeable future.

I provide Prof. Lucas’ observations as a prime example of how a cool head can deal with immense complexity without resorting to simple-minded hyperbole.

Prof. Lucas’ analysis also reminds me that free markets are like football. Both have many fans, yours truly included, but they both require rules and referees. Otherwise, there’d be mayhem. But, the rules for football have necessarily evolved as players have gotten bigger and faster and as technology has intruded. So, too, must the rules for the markets.

At the start of the campaign, then-Senator Obama told a small group of us that he wouldn’t “dumb things down” for the electorate. I applaud his continued resistance to doing so. I urge all of us to support him in this effort despite incessant calls to the contrary.

Having said all of that, I do think the President could take a lesson from Prof. Lucas and from Drew Faust, who succeeded Larry Summers as the president of Harvard. Both know the importance of narrative – a story that makes sense of events. In the attached New York Times interview, President Faust says “One thing I learned [as a new president] was that people impute all kinds of things to leaders…So communication seemed to me something very important from early on, so that people not have that sense of mystery about what a leader is up to.” President Obama is probably one of the best writers among all of our presidents. He should put those skills to better use to tell the country the story – however complicated it may be – of where he wants to take the country, so the dissenters are less
able to impute things that are untrue. President Faust makes a final salient point. “As a scholar, you don’t want to repeat yourself ever…As a university president, you have to say the same thing over and over and over.” U.S. presidents, too.

I support President Obama. We are fortunate to have him as our leader, especially during this period in our history. He doesn’t need to dumb it down. He just needs to more fully exploit his narrative-making skills to help us make sense of our very complicated times.

I urge patience and perspective. One key perspective – a lower unemployment rate will do wonders for the country’s mood. As I wrote in an Obamagram dated 12/4/09, President Reagan’s “approval ratings” in 1983, when unemployment was nearly 11%, were comparable to President Obama’s today. Correlation or causation? Who knows? I simply suspect that the appeal of the current counter narrative declines in direct proportion to declines in the unemployment rate.

One final note – I’m actually glad that the Democrats lost the illusion of a filibuster-proof majority. As one of my college classmates, who worked for Tip O’Neill, wrote me recently, “It was a myth that we ever had 60 votes; we had 54 and 6 we had to bribe”.

Please pass it on.


Charles Ashby Lewis

Managing General Partner
Coach House Capital
2735 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60201

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adobe pdf file Attachment: The Current U S Recession


adobe pdf file Attachment: Leadership Without a Secret Code

#49 From Caricature to Communitarian Cornerstone

Hello Everyone,

As the world now knows, the U.S. Congress has passed health insurance reform legislation. Ninety-eight years after Republican President Theodore Roosevelt first proposed expanding health coverage, this bill was signed into law by President Obama. So much for the ridiculously-premature proclamations of a “failed presidency.” Perhaps a presidency with a legacy is more like it. A communitarian cornerstone in the new foundation he is seeking to lay.

As I’ve written before, this is health insurance reform, not sweeping health care reform. In media coverage, we are already starting to see calm, factual explanations of the law’s provisions replacing misrepresentation, obfuscation and fear. Clarity instead of caricature.

Appropriately, during much of this battle’s denouncement, Penny and I were on a two-week “study mission” to South East Asia. We visited Singapore, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam with about two dozen members of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, led by Lester Crown, its chairman. Our grueling 50-session schedule included meetings with presidents, prime ministers, fund managers, academics, and NGO leaders. Like a short graduate-level course. We go on trips like this to learn about other countries, and, in turn, to learn about our own.

All of these Asian countries are rabidly pursing economic growth with the active help of their governments, while those governments are liberalizing to varying degrees. With a few obvious exceptions, the remaining communist countries in Asia are that in name only.

From half way around the globe, America’s two principal exports – capitalism and democracy – look a little tarnished. Many knowledgeable people complained about how the excesses in our economic system caused problems in their own economies. They worried that we couldn’t reignite our growth and regain our global economic leadership, while avoiding the temptation to erect protectionist barriers.

Similarly, they worried that our democracy was becoming increasingly dysfunctional. Our stop in Indonesia – the world’s third largest democracy with about 230 million people and the home of President Obama for a few years during his childhood – offered some insights in that regard. It has only been a democracy for 12 years – messy, noisy, multi-party and young. But from that vantage point, America’s 230-year-old democracy looked like it had fallen prey to spoiled leaders acting like 12-year olds.

To illustrate the point, upon our return there was an incisive piece in the New York Times about Senate Minority Leader Mitchell McConnell’s strategy for his party:

Before the health care fight, before the economic stimulus package, before President Obama even took office, Senator Mitch McConnell…had a strategy for his party: use his extensive knowledge of Senate procedure to slow things down, take advantage of the difficulties Democrats would have in governing and deny Democrats any Republican support on big legislation.

In the process, Mr. McConnell…more at home plotting tactics…than writing legislation…has come to embody a kind of oppositional politics that critics say has left voters cynical about Washington, the Senate all but dysfunctional and the Republican Party without a positive agenda or message.

…Mr. McConnell’s strategy has left Republicans at risk of being tagged as pure obstructionists and a party without a positive agenda.

The strategy that has brought Senate Republicans where they are today began when they gathered, beaten and dispirited, at the Library of Congress two weeks before Mr. Obama’s inauguration. They had lost seven seats… [and] were about to go up against an extraordinarily popular new president and an emboldened Democratic Congress.

“We came in shellshocked,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “There was sort of a feeling of ‘every man for himself.’ Mitch early on in this session came up with a game plan to make us relevant with 40 people. He said if we didn’t stick together on big things, we wouldn’t be relevant.”…Before long, Republicans in both houses had become a monolith of opposition.

“Throwing grenades is easier than catching them,” acknowledged Senator John Thune of South Dakota, a fellow member of the Republican leadership. [Or to say, it is easier to oppose than propose.]

This article was followed three days later by yet another thoughtful column by David Brooks entitled “The Broken Society” (see attachment). He cites work by the conservative British writer Phillip Blond (most notably in a Feb. 28, 2009 article in the Prospect magazine entitled, “Rise of the Red Tories,” which is also attached). Brooks observes in his column:

The United States is becoming a broken society. The public has contempt for the political class. Public debt is piling up at an astonishing and unrelenting pace. Middle-class wages have lagged. Unemployment will remain high. It will take years to fully recover from the
financial crisis [one I contend that had bipartisan roots and was decades in the making].

This confluence of crises has produced a surge in vehement libertarianism…But, there is another way to respond to these problems that is more communitarian and less libertarian.

Blond argues that over the past generation we have witnessed two revolutions [first from the left, then from the right], both of which liberated the individual and decimated local associations…The two revolutions talked the language of individual freedom, but they
perversely ended up creating greater centralization. They created an atomized, segmented society and then the state had to come in and attempt to repair the damage.

The [left’s] effort to liberate individuals from repressive social constraints didn’t produce a flowering of freedom; it weakened families, increased out-of-wedlock births and turned neighbors into strangers.

The [right’s] free-market revolution didn’t create [a] pluralistic decentralized economy. It created a centralized financial monoculture, which requires a gigantic government to audit its activities.

[According to Blond] “The welfare state and the market state are now two defunct and mutually supporting failures”…The task today, [Blond] argued in a recent speech, is to revive the sector that the two revolutions have mutually decimated: “The project of radical transformative conservatism is nothing less than the restoration and creation of human association, and the elevation of society and the people who form it to their proper central and sovereign station.”

Economically, Blond lays out three big areas of reform: remoralize the market, relocalize the economy and recapitalize the poor [emphasis added]…Essentially, Blond would take a political culture that has been oriented around individual choice and replace it with one oriented around relationships and associations…[America], too, needs a fresh political wind. [It] is suffering a devastating crisis of authority. The only way to restore trust is from the local community on up.

Remoralize the markets, relocalize the economy and recapitalize the poor. Once we’ve done that, perhaps we will once again be ready to export American capitalism and democracy, with a more communitarian flavor, to formerly communist countries in Asia and elsewhere.

Please, as always, pass it on.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: The Broken Society


adobe pdf file Attachment: Prospect – P Blond

#50 Reading Niebuhr to Understand Obama

Hello Everyone,

David Brooks discovered early in the presidential primary campaign that one of Barack Obama’s favorite philosophers is Reinhold Niebuhr. These many months later, I have finally read the new edition of Niebuhr’s 1952 book, The Irony of American History. As a result, I understand President Obama better; the book confirms my faith in him.

Andrew Bacevich is the author of The Limits of Power – I have commended the book to you before, and he will be teaching at my alma mater, Amherst College, this fall. He writes in the new introduction to Irony, “The times in which we live call for a Niebuhrian revival. To read Reinhold Niebuhr today is to avail oneself of a prophetic voice, speaking from the past about the past, but offering truths of enormous relevance to the present…Simply put, [The Irony of American History] is the most important book ever written on U.S. foreign policy.” And, I would argue, it is among the most important on U.S. domestic policy, as well.

Some of you (like my friend Dave Johnson) are students of Niebuhr, but most of us are not. If I read him in college, it didn’t sink in. Having now read Irony, I better understand Obama’s embrace of nuance, complexity, and common sense, as well as his sense of pragmatism and moderation. It has also reinforced my belief that Obama is a deeper and more serious thinker than most presidents in recent memory.

I wrote an Obamagram entitled “Flak from All Sides” in July 2008. I think that continued criticism of him from the left and the right is a good sign. As Brooks said on Sunday morning, Obama is a “moderate, pragmatic liberal” in keeping with “his temperament”. Despite the predictable demands from the left that he take more radical positions and the ludicrous caricatures from the right that he is a “socialist”, Obama remains true to Brooks’ description.

As I’ve said before, the President’s “approval ratings” are likely to improve – and rightist “anger” will subside – as unemployment declines – just as President Reagan’s did. The latter’s bottomed out in 1983 at 35% when unemployment hit almost 11% in the last major recession. President Obama’s are currently at 47% (see attachment).

Criticism from the left may persist, however. This was brought home a couple of weeks ago when I attended a small gathering to hear about a new book. The liberal author prematurely contends in the very first line of the book: “… Barack Obama is at risk of being a failed president.” Unfortunately for the author, the book was released a couple of weeks before the landmark health insurance bill became law, which was quickly followed by the new Start Treaty and the unprecedented conference on nuclear non-proliferation, and financial regulatory reform is at hand. Failed, my foot!

This author, like others of his ilk, wants a reincarnation of FDR – a president who will take radical measures to lift us out of another Great Depression. But as I wrote in April 2009, the recession that we have just experienced was unusually severe and could have been a calamity, but wasn’t. It has turned out to be more like the 1983 recession than the Depression.

When I read books that are rushed to market, I am motivated to find more serious works that have stood the test of time and, therefore, can shed some meaningful light on our President and our times. The Irony of American History fits the bill.

The purpose of this piece is to urge you to delve into this nearly sixty-year-old book, recognizing that it is not an easy read. To whet your appetite, I offer here a few excerpts from it. Naturally, they cannot do justice to Niebuhr’s philosophy, but it’s a beginning.

In Bacevich’s introduction, he writes about what Niebuhr saw as “…the dilemmas confronting the United States as [it emerged after] World War II as a global superpower. The truths he spoke are uncomfortable for us to hear –…the persistent sin of American Exceptionalism; the indecipherability of history; the false allure of simple solutions; and finally, the imperative of appreciating the limits of power…Niebuhr cherished democracy as ‘a method of finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems…’” [emphasis added]

Niebuhr writes about:

Humility. “…Modern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management. [We Americans need] …a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of [history’s] perplexities.”

Pragmatism. “…our actual achievements in social justice have been won by a pragmatic approach to the problems of power…Our achievements …represent the triumph of common sense over the theories of both our business oligarchy and the speculations of…social scientists …We are, in short, more virtuous than our detractors, whether foes or allies, admit, because we know ourselves to be less innocent than our theories assume. The force and danger of selfinterest in human affairs are too obvious to remain long obscure to those who are not too blinded by either theory or interest to see the obvious. The relation of power to interest on the one hand, and to justice on the other, is equally obvious. In our domestic affairs we have thus builded better than we knew because we have not taken the early dreams of our peculiar innocency too seriously. Our foreign policy reveals even more marked contradictions between our early illusions of innocency and the hard realities of the present day than do our domestic policies.”

Flak from all sides. “… the spirit of forgiveness which is the final oil of harmony in all human relations and which rests upon the contrite recognition that our actions and attitudes are inevitably interpreted in a different light by our friends as well as foes than we interpret them.”

Maturity. “…our American nation, involved in its vast responsibilities, must slough off many illusions which were derived both from the experiences and the ideologies of its childhood.”

The irony of being a superpower. “The first element of irony lies in the fact that our nation has, without particularly seeking it, acquired a greater degree of power than any other nation of history…But the second element of irony lies in the fact that a strong America is less completely master of its own destiny than was a comparatively weak America, rocking in the cradle of its continental security and serene in its infant innocence.”

Nuclear disarmament. President Obama clearly understands the irony of “weapons of mass destruction” (a term used by Niebuhr) – the idea that we believe we must threaten to blow up the world in order to save it. Hence the President is determined to move toward a nuclear-free world – but, in small, achievable steps.

Socialism. If Niebuhr were alive today, he would see irony in today’s demands of the far right for “the socialist American government to stay out of our lives” [my quotation, not his] while the communists’ predicted in the last century that, under its ideology, the state would “wither away”.

Excessive individualism. “…our exaltation of the individual involves us in some very ironic contradictions. On the one hand, our culture does not really value the individual as much as it pretends; on the other hand, if justice is to be maintained and our survival assured, we cannot make individual liberty as unqualifiedly the end of life as our ideology asserts.”

Communitarianism. “The concept of ‘the value and dignity of the individual’ of which our modern culture has made so much …is constantly threatened by the same culture which wants to guarantee it. It is threatened whenever it is assumed that individual desires, hopes and ideals can be fitted with frictionless harmony into the collective purposes of man.”

Unbridled capitalism. “…we cannot deny the indictment that we seek a solution for practically every problem of life in quantitative terms; and are not fully aware of the limits of this approach.”

American cult of prosperity. “…every ethical and social problem of a just distribution of the privileges of life is solved by so enlarging the privileges that either an equitable distribution is made easier, or a lack of equity is rendered less noticeable…Yet the price which American culture has paid for this amelioration of social tensions through constantly expanding production has been considerable. It has created moral illusions about the ease with which the adjustment of interests to interests can be made in human society…It has also created a culture which makes ‘living standards’ the final norm of the good life.”

I urge you to read Reinhold Niebuhr to better appreciate the moderation of President Obama and the depth of his thinking and to better understand the ironies from which America cannot escape.

Please, as always, pass it on.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: Presidential Approval Ratings

#51 Long-Term Solutions for Short-Term Dissonance

Hello Everyone,

I started writing these modest commentaries when Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy, in part to make sense of that process for my own edification. Since the campaign, my attention has been less intense, but I continue to try to make some sense of happenings in Washington and in our culture more broadly. Here is my latest intermittent attempt. I apologize in advance for its unusual length. Much to say after the long respite.

Promises Kept

Last Wednesday was a momentous day. The financial regulatory reform bill – the latest of what some have called a “legislative hat trick” for President Obama – was signed into law by him. Two of these new laws – this one and health insurance reform – are considered historic accomplishments.

In that context, a recent front-page article in the New York Times caught my eye. The headline: “Obama Pushes an Agenda, Disregarding Polls That Disapprove.” It quoted one observer saying: “… [Obama] talked before the election about what he wanted to do, and he’s done it. He didn’t trim his sails, he didn’t change his philosophy.” The President was also quoted: “You know, these pundits, they can’t figure me out…They say ‘Well, why is he doing that? That doesn’t poll well…’ I know it doesn’t poll well. But, it’s the right thing to do for America.”

That’s my first point today. We have a president who is doing what he said he was going to do, without regard to short-term swings in public opinion. The professional pundits are finally starting to notice that President Obama’s “approval ratings” seem to be tracking unemployment rates, not legislative accomplishments, just like President Reagan’s did, as I wrote some time back.

In the same vein, I came across an interesting website recently called Politifact.com. You may know it. It won a Pulitzer in 2009. It tracks over 500 “promises” candidate Obama made during the campaign. So far, the site says he has “kept” 119 of them, while “breaking” just 19. Most of the rest are still “in the works,” while only a handful have been “compromised” or are “stalled.” Pretty impressive. Check it out for yourself, if you haven’t already.

Debt Addiction and the Financial Crisis

While it would appear that excessive risk-taking by the largest financial institutions triggered the current financial crisis, I think an argument can be made that the “addiction to debt” – which is pervasive throughout our society and that I have also written about previously – bears much of the blame. And, I mean pervasive – afflicting individuals, as well as governments and corporations. No politician dare bring this squarely to our attention lest he or she be attacked for “blaming the victim.” But it’s true – the blame is virtually universal.

Many citizens in this country use multiple credit cards to borrow at usurious interest rates, incur mortgage debt to buy houses they know or should know they can’t afford, and then borrow on top of that using second mortgages (innocuously marketed as “home equity loans”), all the while saving preciously little or nothing at all, net of debt. Understandably, many use debt to compensate for little or no income growth. But, when economic hard times inevitably reappear, they have little cushion to soften the blow. And, in an incredible display of hypocrisy, many who have long been addicted to debt all of a sudden awake from their stupor and demand that governments “live within their means.” An amazing sight to see.

There was a piece in the Times several days ago that inadvertently – and somewhat pathetically – amplifies my point. Under the headline, “The Rich Catch Everyone Else’s Cutback Fever,” it remarkably bemoans the fact that the economy has recently lost momentum because high end consumers’ negative savings rates have flattened out. Perverse logic indeed.

Crises Are More Frequent Than We Think

Some of you may have read This Time is Different, by economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. They have documented financial crises in 66 countries over the last 800 years. I take away three key points from the book: 1) crises are more frequent and unpredictable than we care to admit, 2) in today’s globalized economies, crises in other countries quickly reach our shores, and 3) financial crises are inevitably exacerbated by debt.

As a result, it seems clear that we Americans need to kick our addiction to debt. If we do, it will mean that economic growth – and job growth – will be slower for some time. But, we can’t expect our government to perform miracles by simultaneously creating jobs and cutting deficits. It can’t happen.

The foundation for the 2008 financial meltdown may have been laid in 1982, when then-Treasury Secretary Paul Volcker broke the back of The Big Inflation. This set the stage for a long bull market in the U.S., marked by small crises and rapid rebounds. That bull market, partly fueled by a long decline in interest rates, came to an end in 2000 when the technology stock bubble burst. With another quick rebound and artificially low interest rates, the illusion of prosperity persisted into 2007.

The financial world “escaped from its box” in the early 1980’s, as Michael Lewis, the author of The Big Short, put it. I remember it well since I made Managing Director at Merrill Lynch about that time. That escape culminated in the repeal one of the last vestiges of effective Wall Street regulation in 1999, during the Clinton administration no less.

Over that nearly two decade period, we were lulled into financial complacency, believing that prosperity and stability were the norm. In fact, as Reinhart and Rogoff argue, we live in an inherently volatile world.

One proxy for that volatility is the stock market. Over the past 45 years, the average annual return for the S&P 500 approximates 9%. But, the standard deviation was 18 percentage points, or a range of returns from -9% to +27%. Volatility is, in fact, the norm, not the exception. We should all plan for that.

Mistakes We Make

On the heels of our most recent financial crisis, I wrote about the problems caused by an “Other People’s Money” mentality – the willingness of financial actors to take out-sized risks with money not their own.

As the aftermath of the crisis lingers, I have also come to realize how we humans are innately reluctant to take responsibility for our own mistakes. There seems to be a parallel to the Other People’s Money phenomenon – the “Someone Else’s Fault” syndrome. As in, someone else caused this financial crisis; I had nothing to do with it.

A few weeks ago, I first heard about a psychology book that sheds some light on the Someone Else’s Fault syndrome and the current wave of what might be called the “politics of anger.” Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) was published in 2007 by two social psychologists, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. The latter is apparently quite prominent in the field. Some of you have undoubtedly read it.

It explores the theory of “cognitive dissonance” – the psychological discomfort that occurs whenever a person tries to simultaneously hold two or more contradictory opinions or ideas. One way to relieve the tension caused by these contradictions is to blame someone else for a predicament which is, at least in part, of your own making – usually accompanied by indignation or anger.

Think of a Tea Party member up to his or her ears in personal debt lambasting the federal government for an increase in the national debt resulting, in part, from the tax cuts and two wars he or she favors. Consumers need to improve their balance sheets – more savings, less debt. Yet, a consumer-driven economy (estimated at about 60% of GDP) cannot quickly return to job-producing growth rates, without high levels of consumer spending. We need to both save and spend. Dissonance.

Insistence on job creation, on the one hand, with fierce aversion to government debt, on the other, so no further stimulus. Dissonance. Reduction of governmental deficits and debt, on the one hand, without cuts in Medicare and Social Security or increased taxes, on the other hand. Dissonance. Small- government, pro-drilling Gov. Bobby Jindal angrily demanding that the federal government fix the oil spill. Major Dissonance.

Mistakes Were Made asserts that the psychoanalytic belief in catharsis – expressing anger relieves frustration – is incorrect. Research shows that anger usually begets more anger. I believe that the Tea Party movement and its ilk will realize that angrily dismissing incumbents will not solve their cognitive dissonance, and will probably only aggravate it. “Irrational vituperance,” to coin a variation on a well- known phrase.

One remarkable exception to this rule is a private investment partnership in which we invest. It is managed by Larry Pidgeon who chose to name his firm “CBM Capital” which stands for “Coke Big Mistake.” This is for him a constant reminder that he should have invested in Coca-Cola when he first analyzed it in depth in the 1980s when it was dirt cheap. Admitting a big mistake. No dissonance there, just a role model.

Avoiding My Own Dissonance

One of the phenomena associated with cognitive dissonance is self-justification – the need to rationalize in order to be consistent. I am aware that some of you think that I suffer from this condition as I cling to my high opinion of our President. Fair enough.

How do I deal with my own potential sources of dissonance and self-justification? Let’s start with deficits and debt, which I agree are a problem, although not largely of this president’s making. Contrary to my self-interest, I achieve consonance by believing that tax cuts for higher-income folks should be permitted to lapse this year and the estate tax reinstated. Likewise, I think that Social Security and Medicare benefits should be income-adjusted to reduce the deficit.

I support the President, but don’t agree with him on every front. For instance, I agree with Roger Altman, a former Treasury official, that the administration can be seen as hostile to business. Although I think that perception does not conform to the record, I do agree that the “no business seat at the table” criticism has some validity and have told the President’s advisers that. Altman writes: “…no important member of [this] administration has ever met a major payroll. Such an absence of business experience in a presidential administration is unique in recent decades and carries negative connotations; certainly no other comparable interest group is so unrepresented. This could be remedied by recruiting a senior industry figure for one of the four or five key economic policy positions…Another problem is that the administration’s rhetoric… has the effect of tarring all of business with the same brush. The White House might better distinguish between Wall Street, Big Oil and health insurers, which have all incurred public wrath, and the majority of businesses, which haven’t.”

I am trying to avoid the trap of cognitive dissonance and self-justification. I’m sure that you will continue to remind me when I fall short.

A Way Forward: Focusing on the Long Term

Lest we despair, my favorite conservative pundit, David Brooks, once again came to the rescue this morning. He writes:

It occurs to me that the Obama administration has done a number of (widely neglected) things that scramble the conventional [political] categories and that are good policy besides…championed some potentially revolutionary education reforms…increased investments in basic research…promoted energy innovation…invested in infrastructure — not only roads and bridges, but also information-age infrastructure.

These accomplishments aren’t big government versus small government; they’re using government to help set a context for private sector risk-taking and community initiative…They also address the core anxiety now afflicting the public. It’s not only short-term unemployment that bothers people…Americans fear we’re a nation in decline.

What would happen if Obama sidestepped the fruitless and short-term stimulus debate and instead focused on the long term? He could explain that we’re facing deep fundamental problems: an aging population, overleveraged consumers [emphasis added], exploding government debt, state and local bankruptcies, declining human capital, widening inequality, a pattern of jobless recoveries, deteriorating trade imbalances and so on.

These long-term problems, Obama could say, won’t be solved either with centralized government or free market laissez-faire. Just as government laid railroads and built land
grant colleges in the 19th century to foster deep growth, the government today should be doing the modern equivalents.

The Chinese seem to have figured this out. It is time we do, too. Please, as always, pass it on. Chuck

#52 Saving, Not Borrowing and Spending

Hello Everyone,

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a fundraiser in Chicago hosted by President Obama for Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias. As he always does, when the President shook my hand, his first words were “How’s Penny?” Penny Sebring is my memorable wife, for those few of you who don’t know.

I awoke the following morning with the predictable regret that all of us have felt – what I “should have said” to the President in the few minutes he sat across the table from me. (I talk regularly with some of his top aides, but not to him these days.)

I should have simply said, “Mr. President, you are doing a remarkable job. Thank you.” As many of you know, that is how I have consistently felt. It is the counter narrative to prevailing conventional wisdom. It is the antidote to the social contagion of the negativism of many, the obstructionism of the organized opposition, and even the pickiness of some of his long-term backers.


As my long-time readers also know, I find athletic analogies useful, hackneyed though they may seem. With this president, we have witnessed a classic swing in “momentum” – the sportscasters’ favorite explanation for most every change of fortune during a game. It is the

mysterious social contagion that wafts through the stands, silencing the crowd when its team is losing ground.

Such is the President’s current predicament. He inherited the immensely complicated and difficult conditions that inevitably led to high unemployment – conditions that have been decades in the making – stretching over multiple administrations.

When thinking about the economy, markets, and politics, we all know that there are multiple factors that influence outcomes and establishing causation is impossible, despite our thirst for definitive answers.

Therefore, it seems to me that one important factor, but not the only one, leading to slow growth and high unemployment is our society’s pervasive, deep, and long-standing “addiction to debt,” which I’ve written extensively about before. Consumers are now engaged in the healthy process of shedding debt and building savings. It will take time. For this reason, among others, unemployment will come down only slowly, regardless of insistent demands to the contrary.

I did say just that to the President last week. He agreed. But, no politician dare say so in public. I wish he would.

We permitted the economic underbrush, to switch metaphors, to grow dry and unattended for decades. The sub-prime mortgage bubble was simply the careless campfire that ignited the conflagration. No matter how “angry” we are, nor how characteristically impatient we are, it simply takes time for healthy vegetation to grow back. Weeds grow quickly. Trees take time.

Incessant and hypocritical demands by “small government” advocates that the federal government “create jobs” – while simultaneously “keeping its hands off” our free enterprise system, avoiding further stimulus, and reducing the public debt – cannot accelerate this process. Sorry.

So, the prevailing highly contagious narrative – that we should be “disappointed” by or even down right “angry” about President Obama’s “performance” – holds little sway with me.

I would speculate that the momentum in this game will shift – and the cheers of the crowd that inevitably accompany it will return – only when the unemployment rate takes a decided turn for the better. I’ve pointed out before that President Reagan faced low approval ratings when unemployment neared 11% in the early 1980s. No matter what the politically-active economists or the legions of pundits say, no one can tell when the unemployment rate will be materially lower.

And, there is precious little the federal government, regardless the party or non-party in power, can do to make it happen tomorrow or to sustain it. May I have the temerity to add that there is something in me that hopes – however faintly – that the House is returned to Republican control, with Tea Party backing, in November. Perhaps only then will the electorate come to understand, in time for the 2012 elections, that no party can perform magic.

Uncertainty and Savings

There has been a good deal of talk lately about “uncertainty” as a root cause of the slow recovery. The implication is that there are periods of time where there is economic “certainty.” Or, that certainty is a normal state. In August, for instance, Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama, blocked recent-Nobel-laureate Professor Peter A. Diamond’s nomination to the Federal Reserve board, saying, “I do not believe that the current environment of uncertainty would benefit from policy decisions made by board members who are learning on the job.” Professor Diamond’s qualifications aside, what catches my eye is the phrase I’ve underlined. Senator Shelby evidently thinks there are times when we live in an environment of certainty.

As our son, Peter, who ably manages investments for our family and others, points out – many of those who single out uncertainty as today’s economic villain mean that they want certain policies that are favorable to them, or what I would call “selective certainty.” For some, certainty in tax policy only means maintaining the tax cuts for the top 2%, not letting them expire. Of course, letting them expire would also produce “certainty” – at least until tax rates change again, which they certainly will.

The important point here is that all aspects of our lives, unfortunately, are inherently uncertain – and that’s why we all need to save. We have all been told incessantly that we have to save for “retirement and our kids’ education.” We are seldom told that we also have to save purely for the “if in life,” to borrow the apt slogan of a large insurance company. We are currently relearning this lesson, the hard way.

It is understandable how we got in this financial pickle. We lived through about twenty-five years of nearly-uninterrupted prosperity. And, every time there was a blip, we bounced back quickly, frequently aided and abetted by bi-partisan or non-partisan government policies demanded by impatient and starry-eye voters. This created the illusion of certainty. Ever onward and upward. As a result, we saw little reason to save and saw little risk in borrowing.

Let’s take a look at recent trends in consumer debt and consumer savings rates. That’s where we find good news. Longer term, but not immediately. Since consumer spending accounts for as much as 70% of GDP, decreasing debt and increasing savings hinder consumption and dampen growth. Since we seem to have been living beyond our collective means for a very long time, we have to return to earth sometime. And, that time appears to be now – having been triggered by the 2008 financial crisis.

Consumer Debt

Revolving consumer credit (virtually all incurred via credit cards) climbed rapidly over the past four decades. From 1968 to its peak in 2008, it grew at almost an 18% average annual growth rate, from about $1 billion to about $990 billion. This is a staggeringly high rate during a period when the other principal factors that could affect those totals grew much more slowly; annual inflation averaged less than 5% and the population grew at about a 1% rate during that time.

It is also interesting to examine how relentless the growth in this proxy for credit card debt has been. Over these 40 years, from 1968 to 2008, such debt has declined for 3 or more consecutive months only once every couple of years. Only once – in 1980 during our last major financial crisis – did it decline longer – for 7 straight months. But, things have been very different since 2008. From its peak in December of that year, the aggregates have declined 19 of the last 20 months, through August 2010, the latest numbers available.

Consumers have started to return to sanity – willingly or not.


In a similar vein, Americans have begun to rebuild their savings after a nearly three-decade decline.

As the following chart indicates, personal savings rates were negative during the Great Depression, spiked during World War II, were in the 7-12% range for much of the next 30 years, then began a long descent after the severe recession ended in the early 1980s and the long period of seeming prosperity began, returning to negative territory in 2005.






The next chart makes the point even more starkly.








In the last couple of years since the crisis, savings rates have predictably made a major turnaround. In the second quarter of this year, they approached 6%.

These two trends – less borrowing and more saving – are “bad” for the economy – in the short term. But, they have to be healthy for it in the intermediate to long term.

And, even if we were to quarrel with that, there isn’t much any president or any congress can do about it. These forces are just too great, the factors too complicated to be long controlled by mere mortals. We’ll just have to be patient – as un-American as that may seem.

When the economy does better, I would suspect that, miraculously, so will President Obama’s approval ratings. He will get his momentum back.

Please, as always, pass it on.


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#53 Squaring the Circle

Hello Everyone,

In my last commentary three weeks ago, I wrote:

Incessant and hypocritical demands by “small government” advocates that the federal government “create jobs” – while simultaneously “keeping its hands off” our free enterprise system, avoiding further stimulus, and reducing the public debt – cannot accelerate [a reduction in the unemployment rate and economic growth.]

And, there is precious little the federal government, regardless the party or non-party in power, can do to make it happen tomorrow or to sustain it. May I have the temerity to add that there is something in me that hopes – however faintly – that the House is returned to Republican control, with Tea Party backing, in November. Perhaps only then will the electorate come to understand, in time for the 2012 elections, that no party can perform magic.

And, so it came to pass. Having slept on it, I am feeling even better about this turn of events for a number of reasons.

First, the Republicans have gotten their fondest wish, but now what? They can continue their cynical (dare I say unpatriotic) monolithic “just say no” tactic. As Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader said recently, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” If they continue to pursue this do-nothing control approach, their control of the House will be short-lived.

Second, even if the Republicans take their responsibility to govern seriously – focusing on job creation for all, not job destruction for this president – it will soon become apparent to the voters that there are no silver bullets, or red bullets or blue. The unemployment rate will remain stubbornly high for some time to come. This will not be good for the Republicans come 2012.

Third, if the Republicans are deceived by their own chicanery into believing that repeal of the health insurance reform law is the voter’s top priority, rather than jobs, they will be delectably hoisted on their own petards two years hence. It is likely that they will misinterpret or over-interpret this year’s election results.

And lastly, we have seen the so-called Tea Party for what it is. A short-term phenomena just like its namesake. Under the presumed leadership of former Governor Palin, most of the high-profile Tea Partybacked candidates lost – including Christie O’Donnell in Delaware (defeated by Chris Coons, an Amherst alum like me); Sharron Angle in Nevada; Carl Paladino in New York; and John Miller in Palin’s home state of Alaska. Sure, Rand Paul won in Kentucky, but I imagine that he will prove to be a libertarian novelty in the Senate, if he sticks to his ideological guns. And, Marco Rubio won in Florida with less than a majority as Crist and Meek took more than 50%.

I suspect that the media will also fail to own up to their collective mistake of obsessing over the passing Tea Party apparition. They also have a tendency, and incentives to, misinterpret and over interpret temporary phenomena.

All in all, I am encouraged by the outcome. Some of the big-spending business types (Fiorina and Whitman in California and McMahon in Connecticut) lost, too. Collectively, the electorate has more common sense than the paid observers would have us believe.

I’ve written before, as a former investment banker and investor, that daily stock market reports drive me nuts. Those reporting invariably claim, for instance, that the market “went down today because Wal-Mart reported disappointing earnings.” Baloney. No one knows why the market went up or down today, or any other day.

The same undoubtedly holds true for politics. All this talk about these mid-term results being a repudiation of the President’s policies is pure speculation. Unknowable, really. My guess, and it can only be that: voters are primarily frustrated about unemployment, real or potential, slow economic growth and the debt burdens they individually bear, for which most refuse to accept responsibility. Like Gov. Jindal, they desperately demand that the despised federal government fix it. But, it can’t. Not, quickly anyway.

Conservative commentator David Brooks said after the election: There is a lot of projecting going on here. Exit polls show that independent voters are more likely to be really alarmed about the deficits. They are also more likely to want to protect Social Security and Medicare and all the other things that create the deficits. So a lot of the upset about Washington is really projection of our own problems onto the Capitol. If the American people are not willing to square the circle, how can we expect our leaders to do that?

Remember my commentary on cognitive dissonance? But, I have confidence in the long-term common sense of American voters. They will continue to vent their frustrations for awhile, but will ultimately “square the circle.” I’m sure President Obama already has. I particularly like an observation I heard recently, I know not where: the framers ingeniously designed our government to respond to “the will, not the whim, of the people.”

Please, as always, pass it on.


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#54 A Civil and Bipartisan Temperament

Hello Everyone,

It has been two months since my last commentary. The combination of the mid-term elections, the lame-duck session, and the Tucson tragedy prompt me to write again.

While the latter event is neither connected to the first two nor directly connected to politics or governance, it has caused me to reflect once more on the presidency and this president.

I have long said I have been drawn to Barack Obama because of his “intellect, temperament and worldview” – a phrase I have repeated numerous times in these pieces. Over the past couple of months, events have put these qualities on fuller display.

A Civil Temperament
In February 2007 in my first Obamagram, I wrote, “I am committed to getting [Barack Obama] nominated and elected [because he is]…deliberative and reflective, [but] not ideological.”

In a speech in Chicago in April 2007, I heard Obama pledge, “a new chapter in American leadership…not of bluster and bombast, but of quiet confidence and sober intelligence.”

That same month, Obama told David Brooks that the esteemed Reinhold Niebuhr is one of his “favorite philosophers.” When David asked what Obama had learned from Niebuhr, he replied without hesitation as he walked off the Senate floor, “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And, we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But, we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism…”

We can see how this philosophy informed and how his own intellect and temperament shaped the President’s remarks in Tucson, much of which he reportedly wrote himself, as is his wont.

…at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds…

Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding…and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath…

As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together…

If this tragedy prompts reflections and debate – as it should – let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost…

And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy – it did not – but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud…

…that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country…

We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us…

I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us…should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

Those words are ample proof of the President’s intellect, temperament, and worldview – his belief in the importance of being civil in all aspects of our lives.

I have tried to be civil in writing these pieces. I know how important words are.

Civility is the President’s sweet spot. In July 2008, I wrote,

…Barack’s temperament is…cool, composed, even-tempered, poised. Everything I’ve learned about him [since 2003] – [from] dozens of his family, friends and associates – confirms the public perception of a man who has a high level of emotional intelligence. He is cool, not just stylistically, but constitutionally…

In April 2008, I wrote about the simple due diligence I had done with Obama’s pick-upbasketball- playing buddies who reported that he “isn’t a hot head” on the court either.

In the primary and general election and repeatedly during his first two years in office, many of Obama’s supporters – especially from the left – have urged him to show more emotion, even anger. He seldom, if ever, has taken that bait.

Back in December 2007, Brooks’ insights were again enlightening:

Obama is an inner-directed man in a profession filled with insecure outerdirected ones…He has a core and is able to maintain his equipoise…Obama does not ratchet up hostilities; he restrains them…His is a worldview that detests anger as a motivating force.

Intellect, temperament and worldview.

In September of 2008, in the midst of the financial meltdown, I wrote, “…voters are starting to be reminded, or learning for the first time, of some of the attributes that commend Barack for the presidency. He’s calm, coherent, and cerebral.”

As a New Yorker editorial said in October 2008,

…Obama’s transformative message is accompanied by a sense of pragmatic calm. A tropism for unity is an essential part of his character…The exhaustingly, sometimes infuriatingly, long campaign of 2008 (and 2007) has had at least one virtue: it has demonstrated that Obama’s intelligence and steady temperament are not just figments of a writer’s craft.

Parenthetically, I notice that the White House staff has also become more civil recently with the elevation of my good-natured, moderate, and talented friend Austan Goolsbee to the chairmanship of the Council of Economic Advisors and the arrival of steady-handed Bill Daley, who I know a little, and the departures of Larry Summers and Rahm Emanuel.

A Bipartisan Temperament
Last October, I wrote “that there is something in me that hopes – however faintly – that the House is returned to Republican control.”

Well, it has been, and I like it.

When the Democrats controlled both houses, you will remember that not a single, solitary Republican voted for the health care (really “health insurance”) law when it was passed by the Senate in December 2009 and the House in March 2010. Zero Republicans.

By contrast, laws passed in the lame duck session thankfully elicited varying degrees of bipartisanship support:

  • Tax cut and unemployment benefit extensions: 45 Democratic and 37 Republican Senators voted affirmatively, as did 139 Democratic and 138 Republican Congressmen and women;
  • New START treaty: 13 of the 39 voting Republicans were in the affirmative; and
  • Repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”: 6 Republican Senators and 15 Republican House members voted affirmatively.

Not only are these three votes somewhat encouraging, I would submit that the more bipartisan tone of the lame duck session was also more aligned with the President’s fundamental nature. In fact, I think he has been liberated from his so-called filibuster-proof majority in both houses that seemed to stymie any chance of bipartisan cooperation.

In Obama’s famous 2004 convention speech, he said, “…there is not a liberal America and a conservative America, — there’s a United States of America…” In April of last year, on the heels of the health insurance law’s signing, Brooks described the President as a “pragmatic moderate liberal” – a characterization he repeated just last week and one I wholeheartedly embrace.

In July of 2008, some noted that Obama was “taking flak from all sides,” and I called that a good sign. That continues today (think of the tax-cut compromise) as a by-product of his pragmatism, moderation, and preference for bipartisan agreement. A small, but inevitable, price to pay.

Some good is coming out of the mid-term elections and the lame duck session. And, Tucson has reintroduced us to the essential notion of civility. I’m encouraged and I hope you are too.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on http://obamagrams.com.


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#55 Reading Obama

Hello Everyone,

When Barack Obama launched his presidential campaign in January 2007, I started to write these commentaries in order to introduce him to those of you who didn’t already know him. Now that President Obama has announced his re-election campaign, I thought it fitting to take another step in trying to understand him more deeply.

This is particularly relevant in light of the President’s remarkable display of self-control two weeks ago. On Friday, April 29, he gives instructions to draft the order to raid Osama bin Laden’s compound. The following evening, the President is hilarious in roasting Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner. On Sunday, the raid succeeds and bin Laden is dead. Few could manage that combination.

In an article in the New York Times yesterday about the turmoil across North Africa and the Middle East, President Obama’s national security adviser described him as deeply immersed in all the Arab countries undergoing political upheaval. “The President, in each of these cases, has really been the central intellectual force in these decisions…” [emphasis added]

A relatively recent and still obscure book helps us to more fully understand the intellect, temperament and worldview that enables this president to deal with the endless complexity he has faced throughout his tenure. A friend of mine, who had the reviewed early manuscripts of it, sent me a copy.

Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope and the American Political Tradition was written by Prof. James T. Kloppenberg, a specialist in the field of intellectual history and chair of the History Department at Harvard. It was published by the Princeton University Press earlier this year. Unlike the President’s own best-selling books, it is not surprising to learn that this scholarly analysis of his intellectual development recently ranked 120,726th in sales at the Kindle on-line store. Nonetheless, it is an important book.

In this limited space – and with my limited knowledge – I cannot do justice to Prof. Kloppenberg’s sweeping analysis. So, my purpose here is to offer a sampling of that analysis to encourage you to delve into this informative book for yourself. (All of the following sections which are indented or are in quotation marks are taken from the book. I have supplied the underlines.)

According to a summary of this work in the New York Times, in preparing to write about…

…the influences that shaped President Obama’s view of the world, Prof. Kloppenberg interviewed the president’s former professors and classmates, combed through his books, essays, and speeches, and even read every article published during the three years Mr. Obama was involved with the Harvard Law Review…Prof. Kloppenberg [concludes] that President Obama is a true intellectual – a word that is frequently considered an epithet among populists… Prof. Kloppenberg…sees Mr. Obama as a kind of philosopher president, a rare breed that can be found only a handful of times in American history…[limited to] John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison…John Quincy Adams… Abraham Lincoln, and…Woodrow Wilson.

Reading Obama is not a biography or a political commentary. It is a book solely about Barack Obama as a man of ideas as seen through the lenses of an intellectual historian. Contrary to the opinion of populists and other critics, I am thankful that we have an intellectual President, who has the capacity and studied perspective to cope with a myriad of complex problems.

Product of Three Developments

Barack Obama is the product of three distinct developments…the history of American democracy…; the philosophy of pragmatism originated in the writings of William James and John Dewey…; and the intellectual upheavals …on American campuses during the decades [Obama] spent studying at Occidental College, Columbia University, and the Harvard Law School, and teaching…at the University of Chicago Law School.

Thinkers Who Have Influenced Obama

[In college and law school] Obama encountered a wide range of thinkers. Among Americans he was exposed to the ideas of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and some of the Anti-Federalists who opposed the U.S. Constitution; Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; antebellum reformers including Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln; assorted populists, progressives, and New Dealers; Protestant theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr [about whose influence on Obama I’ve written earlier]; and leading figures in the civil rights movement and radicals of the 1960s. On the European side, Obama encountered Greek and Roman political philosophy and the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jurgen Habermas, complex thinkers who probed the possibilities and the limits of politics.

Philosophical Pragmatism
The heart of Prof. Kloppenberg’s argument is that President Obama is a “philosophical pragmatist”, not simply a “vulgar pragmatist” or expedient political compromiser, as some would have it. In short, “philosophical pragmatism…challenges the claims of [universalists and] absolutists…and…embraces uncertainty, provisionality, and continuous testing of hypotheses through experimentation.” Pragmatism in Today’s Partisan Environment If philosophical pragmatism informs Obama’s political outlook, the history of pragmatists’ engagement in politics also suggests the reasons why pragmatism may be particularly ill-suited to our own cultural moment. At a time when partisans left and right vie to proclaim rival versions of certainty with greater self-righteousness, the pragmatists’ critique of absolutism and embrace of open-ended experimentation seems off-key, unsatisfying, perhaps even cowardly.

Political commentators of all stripes are frustrated by this approach. They want President Obama to “lead from the front.” I think the bi-partisan agreements on tax-cuts and unemployment insurance during the lame duck session in Congress and on the recently-passed budget are evidence that his patient, philosophically pragmatic approach can work even in today’s contentious times, in keeping with voters’ calls for bi-partisanship. The bin Laden raid was anything but cowardly.

A Hybrid of Old and New

Obama’s books, his speeches, and his political record make clear that he represents a hybrid of old and new, which explains why he puzzles so many contemporaries – supporters and critics alike – who see him through conventional and thus distorting lenses. Placing him in American intellectual history illuminates both the genuinely novel dimensions of his worldview, which have gone largely unnoticed, and the older traditions he seeks to resurrect. Obama’s vision of American history and his understanding of its present condition…reflect the profound changes American culture has undergone in recent decades. If we want to understand him, we must understand how he sees the present in light of the past, and also how he envisions the future in light of his own – and his nation’s – place within a global community that has undergone dramatic and unprecedented cultural transformations.

Lessons from Community Organizing

…a master [organizer] takes the time to listen to many comments, rephrases questions, and waits until the individuals in the group begin to see for themselves what they have in common. A skilled organizer then patiently allows the animating principles and the plan of action to emerge from the group itself. That strategy obviously takes more time. It also takes more intelligence, both analytical and emotional.

In 1988, when he was an organizer on Chicago’s South Side and a full seven years before he wrote Dreams from My Father, Obama wrote a revealing article “Why Organize? Problems and Promise in the Inner City.”

This 1988 article testifies powerfully to the different sources of Obama’s emerging political sensibility. It shows the roles played both by central themes in American political thought and by Obama’s immersion in community organizing.

Intellectual Capacity and Conflict Resolution Shown at Harvard

From the beginning of his time in law school, Obama impressed the faculty – and his fellow students – for two reasons…his exceptional intelligence enabled him to master difficult concepts [and his] striking ability to resolve conflicts…

Obama’s Two Important Books

Dreams from My Father [written after law school] and The Audacity of Hope [written when he was in the U.S. Senate] should be acknowledged as the most substantial books written by anyone elected president of the United States since Woodrow Wilson.

Temperament and Worldview

In one of my earliest Obamagrams, I wrote that I was drawn to Obama because of his “intellect, temperament, and worldview,” verified by the extensive “due diligence” I had done on him. But, Prof. Kloppenberg goes deeper:

[His] self-restraint and self-awareness [and] vaunted poise…derives from something beside his temperament…In order to understand how and why Obama has almost always tried, and has so often succeeded, in resolving disputes, it is necessary to dig deeper into the way he thinks and why. The explanation of his commitment to conciliation lies in his idea of democracy as deliberation, his sure grasp of philosophical pragmatism, his Christian realism, and his sophisticated understanding that history, with all its
ambiguities and ironies, provides the best rudder for political navigation.

His worldview was also shaped by the debates that rocked the campuses where he studied and taught, debates about ideas as well as politics. Much as he might need to mask it on the campaign trail, where he demonstrates his impressive skill as a politician, his books make clear that Barack Obama is also very much an intellectual. For example [formatting added]:

a) Near the end of Dreams from My Father, [Obama] describes the law as the record of “a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience”…I am arguing…from Obama’s writings back to the philosophy of pragmatism in order to show the congruence between antifoundationalism, historicism, experimentalism, and democracy in his way of thinking.
b) [Obama claims that] the animating ideal of [our] nation is “ordered liberty.”
c) [Obama argued that] the framers set up “a community in which a common culture, a common faith, and a well-developed set of civic virtues” enabled citizens to contain the inevitable “contention and strife” on which democracy depends. By experiencing such struggles… Americans learned that the individual’s “self-interest” is “inextricably linked to the interests of others.”

Reading “Reading Obama”
I hope that this sampling will prompt some of you to read this revealing book. For those who can’t, I hope these excerpts add a modicum of further understanding of how President Obama thinks and, therefore, acts.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on http://obamagrams.com/.


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#56 Perspectives on Deficits and Surpluses

Hello Everyone,

All eyes are on Washington these days as we approach the dreaded debt ceiling. Endless talk about “debt and deficits.”

So, I thought a little perspective might help. I have long tried to follow the admonition of a longtime investment banking colleague – that to get to the truth you have to “look it up”. Amherst drove that home, too. Get the facts from primary, not secondary, sources; reach your own conclusions; don’t simply accept those offered by others.

Let’s focus on the topic of the day – deficits. With the help of our son, Peter (who runs an investment partnership), I have looked at raw data provided by the Office of Management and Budget covering several decades. They reveal some illuminating facts relevant to today’s superheated political debate. Look at the data and make your own observations. Here are some of mine.

  1. Deficits are common; surpluses are rare. Deficits have been with us for a very long time. In Attachment A, you will notice that there have been Total Surpluses in only 13 of the 81 fiscal years from 1930 to 2010, or 16% of the time. Since 1960, there have been Total Surpluses in only 5 years – 1969 and 1998-2001. (“Total Deficits” and “Total Surpluses” are defined as the sum of “On-Budget, Social Security, and (humorously) Postal Service Receipts and Outlays” — see column headings in Attachment B. Using percentages of Gross Domestic Product makes the most sense to keep absolute dollars in perspective).
  2. On-Budget Surpluses are rarer still. They have occurred only in one year since 1960 – in 2000 – and 1999 was essentially breakeven (Attachment A).
  3. A Revenue-induced Surplus. In 2000, one could assume that extraordinary capital gains tax collections – resulting from the tech stock bubble, a non-recurring event – were largely responsible for the large increase in Individual Income Taxes. That may have accounted for the entire Surplus that year, the only one in over 40 years (Attachment C).
  4. Deficits are bipartisan. Not a single presidential term, whether Republican or Democratic, has been deficit-free since 1930 (Attachment A).
  5. Revenues matter, not just spending. From 1983 (the middle of President Reagan’s first term) through 2008 (the financial crisis), the country enjoyed an unprecedented period of prosperity – some of which, in hindsight, seems to have been illusory. During this 26-year period, On-Budget Receipts averaged 13.4%. In 2009 and 2010, they fell to the 10% range, their lowest since 1942 (the year I was born!) (Attachment A). Our recent large deficits are the result of both higher spending and very low tax receipts.
  6. Surpluses don’t last long. In the ballyhooed years of Total Surpluses from 1998 through 2001 – overlapping the Clinton and Bush administrations – this rare phenomenon was expected to last for years and quickly extinguish the entire national debt. In 2000, it was widely reported that “…both the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) are forecasting that these surpluses will continue over the next decade, in amounts large enough that the public debt will be fully redeemed in 2012” [emphasis added; Brookings Institution, Jan. 1, 2000]. These years of Total Surpluses were also misleading, since there was only one year of meaningful On-Budget Surpluses – 2000 – see point 2, above.
  7. Wars” are expensive. Warren Buffett described the financial crisis as an “economic war” and 2008 as our “economic Pearl Harbor.” The implication was that our government has to engage in extraordinary spending in both “military wars” and “economic wars” to preserve the two pillars of our American way of life – democracy and capitalism. In 1983, President Reagan was fighting to recover from the severe recession that Paul Volcker induced to break runaway inflation – that, in turn, led to unemployment approaching 11%, higher than it was in the most recent recession. Notice that his On-Budget Outlays exceeded 19% — close to the spending levels in 2009 and 2010 (Attachment A).
Type of “War” Fiscal Year On-Budget Outlays (%GDP)
Military 1942 24
1943 44
1944 44
1945 42
Economic 1983 19
Military & Economic 2009 21
2010 20

As I look at these data, I reach many conclusions. You undoubtedly will reach your own.

  1. Long-term habits (like addictions to debt) are exacerbated by the effects of compounding and are not quickly or easily broken. (See Obamagram entitled “Culture of Addiction and Impatience” – 3/12/09 – Group 5, Item 4 – on our website).
  2. We are all culpable because we have used, or have permitted the use of, excessive debt throughout our society for decades. The government’s deficits and debt simply reflect our collective lack of discipline.
  3. Speaker Boehner said again Tuesday night that as a former small businessman he knows that you can’t “spend more than you take in.” True. But, he knows, but won’t say, that you also can take in more. In any business, there is always a balance between growing revenues and cutting expenses.
  4. During good economic times, we should produce federal budget surpluses to support deficit spending needed in bad economic times. As Larry Summers said when he was Secretary of the Treasury during the last Surplus year, in good times we need to “reload the fiscal cannon.”
  5. A “balanced budget amendment” would tie our hands during times of “war” – military or economic.
  6. Balance between revenues and spending (as President Obama has been emphasizing) and compromise are essential to finding a healthier fiscal footing.

Geoff Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley, was interviewed on NPR recently about the meaning of the word “compromise:”

…compromise is the basis of human society itself. Edmund Burke put it succinctly in 1775 in a famous speech calling on the British Parliament to conciliate with the American colonies. “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise.”

“Compromise” is what Freud would have called an ambivalent word… [it] faces in two directions. It looks forward to the bargains we strike, but it also looks backward at what we had to sacrifice to get there…That backward-looking meaning is always in play when people reject the word. “I am not going to compromise on my principles…”

…[but] nobody gets through a week without realizing they’ve compromised their principles…And politicians understand that they have to shave a little off their convictions to get anything done – as Burke said, that’s what it means to govern in a democracy.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on http://obamagrams.com.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: Attachment A


adobe pdf file Attachment: Attachment B


adobe pdf file Attachment: Attachment C

#57 Addiction to Debt, Part II

Hello Everyone,

Some of you may have noticed a recent headline in the New York Times — “China Tells U.S. It Must ‘Cure Its Addiction to Debt’ ” (see attachment A). In my 40th Obamagram on March 12, 2009 (“Culture of Addiction and Impatience”), I wrote about this topic – the addiction’s decades long pathology and how pervasive it is across our culture, not just in our government.

I wrote then that we also look for simple solutions and quick fixes – our “culture of impatience.” In that vein, Frank Bruni recently wrote a column entitled, “True Believers, All of Us,” about Gov. Perry’s prayer rally and its larger lessons (see attachment B).

[We all yearn] for easy, all-encompassing answers. Didn’t the debt-ceiling showdown show us that? That battle was defined largely by the unshakable, grandiose convictions of low-taxes, small-government puritans in the House… It felt more like theology than science.

…Liberals think magically, too, becoming so attached to a certain approach that they wind up advocating it less as option than as panacea.

It has always been thus, all around the world and all through history. Marxism was supposed to be the answer to everything. Prohibition was supposed to redeem America, and unionization was supposed to guarantee a decent life for workers forevermore. Not all worked out exactly as planned.

Even lesser, more specific initiatives command a reverence out of proportion with actual facts. Look at the early-education program Head Start…Discussion about it has almost always centered on how best to protect or, ideally, expand it, because it so surely accomplishes such great good…Except maybe it doesn’t.

…In government and so much else there are a multitude of options to weigh, a plenitude of roads to take and a tendency to puff up the one actually taken, because doing so squelches second-guessing and quells doubt…Clarity seduces. So does simplicity.

…And right now, with the stock market floundering and our credit rating downgraded and millions of Americans stranded in unemployment and Washington frozen in confusion, the temptation to look for one summary prescriptive — for certainty, even miracles — is strong. We’d be wise to resist it. To get us out of this mess, we need a full range of extant remedies, a tireless search for new ones and the nimbleness and open-mindedness to evaluate progress dispassionately and adapt our strategy accordingly. [Sounds like President Obama to me.] Faith and prayer just won’t cut it. In fact, they’ll get in the way.

At President Obama’s 50th birthday dinner party in Chicago last week, I happened to pose the first question to him – which was really a comment. I said, “Thank you, Mr. President, for defending the word ‘compromise.’ ”

Tom Friedman was on the same wavelength last Sunday in his piece, “Win Together or Lose Together” (see attachment C).

Our slow decline is a product of two inter-related problems. First, we’ve let our five basic pillars of growth erode since the end of the cold war — education, infrastructure, immigration of high-I.Q. innovators and entrepreneurs, rules to incentivize risk-taking and start-ups, and government-funded research to spur science and technology.

No one better explains the implications of this than Kenneth Rogoff, a professor of economics at Harvard [and co-author of This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly; I quoted him in my Obamagram on 7/27/10, “Long- Term Solutions for Short-Term Dissonance”]…[He] argued in an essay last week…that we are not in a Great Recession but in a Great (Credit) Contraction: “Why is everyone still referring to the recent financial crisis as the ‘Great Recession?’ ” asked Rogoff. “The phrase ‘Great Recession’ creates the
impression that the economy is following the contours of a typical recession…But the real problem is that the global economy is badly overleveraged…

… Many commentators have argued that fiscal stimulus has largely failed not because it was misguided…in a ‘Great Contraction,’ problem No. 1 is too much debt [with nearly everyone, everywhere, not just governments].” Until we find ways to restructure and forgive some of these debts from consumers, firms, banks and governments, spending to drive growth is not going to come back at the scale we need.

Our challenge now, therefore, is to deleverage the economy [not the same as simply cutting government spending] as fast as possible, while, at the same time, getting back to investing as much as possible in our real pillars of growth so our recovery is built on ustainable businesses and real jobs and not just on another round of credit injections.

Regarding deleveraging, Rogoff suggests, for example, that the government facilitate the writing down of mortgages in exchange for a share of any future home-price appreciation.

Regarding growth, we surely need a much smarter long-term fiscal plan than the one that just came out of Washington. We need to cut spending in areas and on a time schedule that will hurt the least; we need to raise taxes in ways that will hurt the least…and we need to use some of these revenues to invest in the pillars of our growth, with special emphasis on infrastructure, research and incentives for risk-taking and start-ups…

In January, the President’s State of the Union address was built on a similar theme, “We need to out-innovate, out-education and out-build the rest of the world.” Notice his emphasis on the word “we.” That is the forward-looking, collaborative theme we all need to keep in mind.

Recently, another opinion piece asked “What Happened to Obama?” Some of you have pointed it out to me. It urges the President to summarize in a simple narrative what has gone wrong and how we get out of our jobs and debt hole. Way too simplistic for me. Reaganesque or Rooseveltian-narratives – about American exceptionalism or blaming Wall Street or how we quickly return to “normal” – make little sense to me. President Obama does, however, need to constantly reiterate our need to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build.”

We first must to recapitalize our economy, while dealing with our ubiquitous addiction to debt.

And, we have to “win together.” Collaboration, not confrontation. Compromise is indeed a grand and honorable word.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on http://obamagrams.com.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: Attachment A


adobe pdf file Attachment: Attachment B


adobe pdf file Attachment: Attachment C

#58 Out-educate, Out-innovate, Out-build

Hello Everyone,

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of our political bickering. I’m equally annoyed by the demand that the President “fix” our economy and “create jobs.” We all got in the current economic fix together, and we’ll only get out of it together.

While we continued on our merry way over the last few decades, enjoying what Robert Reich (too predictably liberal for me) calls the Great Prosperity, the world fundamentally changed, as Tom Friedman and others point out.

Our predicament is not the doing of President Obama or any of his predecessors. It is not largely a result of government policy or evil corporations let alone sub-prime mortgages. It is probably due to a highly complex combination of cultural, technological, geo-political and other factors too complex for anyone to disentangle.

The world’s economy, and America’s place in it, is what some call an “emergent system.” Emergence is a concept that has been considered for a very long time but is new to me. As one of my favorite sources, David Brooks, put it in his book, The Social Animal,

Through most of human history, people have tried to understand their world through deductive reasoning. That is to say, they have been inclined to take things apart to see how they work…The problem with this approach is that it has trouble explaining dynamic complexity, the essential feature of a human being, a culture, or a society. So, recently there has been a greater appreciation for the structure of emergent systems. Emergent systems exist when…the pieces of a system interact, and out of their interaction something entirely new emerges… [independent of] a central controller.

In his 2001 book, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, Steven Johnson is one recent commentator on this topic. One of the examples of an emergent system that he explores is an ant colony, which is organized without a leader, unlike a beehive led by a queen. Other examples are poverty or, my favorite, the stock market. Dynamically complex without a central controller.

Probably for some of the reasons I mentioned above, the United States has over the past few decades become more deeply engaged in the global economic system at an ever-accelerating pace. It is an emergent system where there is no central controller. “Instead,” as Brooks puts it, “once a pattern of interaction is established, it has a downward influence on the behavior of the components.” The U.S. is but one component of the global economy, albeit the largest one.

The idea that one person – even an exceptional one like Barack Obama – can exert control over the emergent system that is the U.S. economy, let alone the global economy, is foolhardy. The President could, however, help us to better understand how things have changed and what we collectively, as Americans, might do to respond to these changes over time.

The simple outlines of this might be: “We are part of a global economy now. There’s no going back. So, we have to become a stronger global economic competitor.”

In his State of the Union address last January, the President already gave us our call to action. We must “out-educate, out-innovate, and out-build” our competitors.

He could slightly amend his central campaign slogan for this larger purpose: “Yes, we Americans can.” This is a positive message which urges collective action.

All entities – be they countries, companies, universities, or sports teams – need worthy competitors (not enemies). Competition is a unifying force which makes them all better.

One useful perspective, among many, on how conditions have changed is offered in a paper given to me recently by a University of Chicago colleague which was published by the Woodrow Wilson Center at Princeton University. It argues that competing economically is the answer to these changed conditions. It is entitled “A National Strategic Narrative” – which will appeal to those clamoring for narrative. But, it is really a call for “A National Prosperity and Security Narrative.” It was written by Navy Capt. Wayne Porter and Marine Col. Mark Myklaby under the pseudonym “Mr. Y” in the manner of George Kennan’s highly influential piece on “containing” the Soviet Union, which he penned in 1947 under the pseudonym “X.”

In her preface to the paper, Anne-Marie Slaughter, writes: “In one sentence, the strategic narrative of the United States in the 21st century is that we want to become the strongest competitor and most influential player in a deeply inter-connected global system, which requires that we invest less in defense and more in sustainable prosperity and the tools of effective global engagement…The Y article…responds directly to five major transitions in the global system (emphasis added; see the Attachment for the full article):

  1. From control in a closed system to credible influence in an open system.
  2. From containment to sustainment.
  3. From deterrence and defense to civilian engagement and competition.
  4. From zero sum to positive sum global politics/economics.
  5. From national security to national prosperity and security.

One last piece of advice for President Obama, if I may be so bold, is to learn to be repetitive, as boring as that can be. Drew Faust made this point in an interview in the business section of the New York Times in 2009, soon after ascending to the presidency of Harvard:

Q. Given your role, I imagine that people are not shy about giving you feedback about your leadership style.

A. One lesson I’ve learned has to do with communication. Someone would say, “Well, you’ve never talked about X,” and I’d say, “I’ve talked about that here, there, here. I talk about that all the time.” Then I realize that “all the time” isn’t enough. You have to do “all the time,” and more.

Q. Even though you feel as if you’re repeating yourself over and over?

A. Yes, and that’s another thing. As a scholar, you don’t want to repeat yourself ever. You’re supposed to say it once, publish it, and then it’s published and you don’t say it again. If someone comes and gives a scholarly paper about something they’ve already published, that’s just terrible. As a university president, you have to say the same thing over and over and over. That’s very important [emphasis added].

Good advice, Mr. President. “Yes, we Americans can.” But, we must “out-educate, outinnovate, and out-build” our global competitors.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on


Charles Ashby Lewis

2735 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60201

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adobe pdf file Attachment: A National Strategic Narrative

#59 Presidential Politics

Hello Everyone,

I started these commentaries almost five years ago when Barack Obama announced his candidacy, for the purpose of introducing him to those who didn’t yet know him. Then, I moved on to trying to understand the nomination process and sharing what I learned. They have continued to evolve.

Now it seems like it is back to the future. I’m feeling the need once again to understand what is happening with presidential politics as we stand thirteen months from the next election.

In the past ten days, the picture has been coming into focus. As others are starting to observe, it seems that the President has decided that he needs to follow his political instincts. He is going to deemphasize his quest for bipartisanship in the face of intractable opposition. Instead, he will focus on improving his standing with voters while trying to do some “discreet good” on jobs and the deficit along the way, but relenting on his efforts to do “systemic good.” He would prefer a nobler, grander, longer-term approach, but that is no longer possible.

As usual, the first piece that got my attention in this process was David Brooks’ column on September 15 (see Attachment 1). In it he writes:

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman [a progenitor of behavior economics]…calls this “the planning fallacy” [failing to realize how limited an individual’s powers really are].

… Over the past three years, the United States has been committing the planning fallacy on stilts…The key to wisdom [following a crisis] is to make the distinction between discrete good and systemic good. When you are in the grip of a big, complex mess, you have the power to do discrete good but probably not systemic good.

When you are the president in a financial crisis, you have the power to pave roads and hire teachers…But you don’t have the power to transform the whole situation.

This is a good reminder that those demanding that the President “fix” the economy are being wholly unrealistic, as I argued in my last Obamagram. The best thing he can do is some “discreet good” now, while urging us to “out-educate, out-innovate and out-build” our global competition over the long term.

Brooks followed the “planning fallacy” piece with one in which he expressed his frustration – which many of us share – that since President Obama has not been able to find the bipartisanship he has so ardently sought, he has decided instead to focus on winning reelection. This is entirely understandable to me.

The President has tried for two and a half years to be bipartisan, to compromise, and to be civil in trying to change the environment in Washington and all he has gotten is grief for it – from both sides. Recently, his “job approval ratings” have slipped and the buzz is that his presidency is “in trouble.”

So, it might well be that the President and his team have decided that enough is enough. We’ll try the high-minded stuff again after the next election. Now it’s time to win.

A column entitled “Why the White House Changed Course,” by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post was referenced by Brooks in his lamentation (see Attachment 2). Klein makes great sense to me.

Since the [mid-term] election, the Obama administration’s working theory has been that the first-best outcome is striking a deal with Speaker John Boehner and, if that fails, the second-best outcome is showing that they genuinely, honestly wanted to strike a deal with
Speaker John Boehner…

The collapse of [the “grand bargain” on deficit reduction with Speaker Boehner] taught them two things: Boehner doesn’t have the internal support in his caucus to strike a grand bargain with them, and the American people don’t give points for effort…

[The President] would like to win by governing effectively, by cutting deals with the other party, by making Washington work. He doesn’t want to run a generic Democratic campaign hammering Republicans for being willing to cut Medicare even as they cut taxes on the rich…

The choice, it turned out, wasn’t between winning by making tough choices and hard compromises and winning by running as a populist. It was between losing because he was unable to get

Washington to make tough choices and hard compromises and trying something else. So now the White House is trying something else.

The new theory goes something like this: The first-best outcome is still striking a grand bargain with the Republicans, and it’s more likely to happen if the Republicans worry that Democrats have found a clear, popular message that might win them the election. The better Obama looks in the polls, the more interested Republicans will become in a compromise that takes some of the Democrats’ most potent attacks off the table [emphasis added]…

But the second-best outcome isn’t necessarily looking like the most reasonable guy in the room. It’s looking like the strongest leader in the room…

That isn’t how the White House would prefer to govern. It’s not how they would prefer to campaign. It is, let’s admit it, politicsas- usual…But it’s also the only option they have left [emphasis added].

In an Obamagram, entitled “Flak From All Sides,” that I wrote over three years ago, I said:

In my humble opinion, it is time for us to recognize that Barack Obama is also a politician. A world class politician…His nomination was not an immaculate conception. He’s no innocent. And, thank God for that.

We can fantasize about Barack being “apolitical,” “post-political,” “post-partisan,” or what have you. The fact is that he is a masterful politician. He proved that in the primaries, defeating more “privileged” rivals.

But, “politician” doesn’t need to be the pejorative we have come to assume. John F. Kennedy, himself an accomplished politician, once said, “Mothers may…want their favorite sons to grow up to be president, but…they do not want them to become politicians in the process.”

Perhaps Politician Obama has realized he has to take a more circuitous route than he prefers. As Klein says, “The better Obama looks in the polls, the more interested Republicans will become in a compromise”…

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on http://www.obamagrams.com.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: The Planning Fallacy


adobe pdf file Attachment: Why the White House Changed Course

#60 Declaring the Grand Compromise Winner

Hello Everyone,

Jon Stewart, my primary news source, beat me to it. Last week, he declared Mitt Romney the Republican nominee. I was about to do the same in this space. So, I’m happy to endorse Stewart’s declaration.

If by some fluke, I am wrong, and one of the other candidates wins the nomination, I am also happy to be the first to declare President Obama the winner of the general election. It would be his great good fortune to repeat the 2004 Senate race in Illinois when both Democrat Blair Hull and Republican Jack Ryan imploded, and he was left to run against a caricature of a candidate, Alan Keyes.

The continued portrayal of the Republican nominating process as a tight horse race is, in my view, largely a contrivance much like the final four months of the last Democratic primary in 2008.

One partial, and admittedly imperfect, explanation is that these fictions are necessary to fill the insatiable appetite of print, television, and electronic media for “content.” Of course, they are all constrained by the imperative to be “fair” (well, almost all are), taking heed of (or comfort from) vacillating polling results and other imperfect indicia. The incentives are inherently perverse, however. No one wants to declare the game over – as Stewart and I just did — lest the fans leave the stands or turn off their sets.

In 1972, as a young investment banker, I started to work with a small CATV (community antenna television) company named Tele-Communications, Inc., or TCI. It began by importing over-the-air, or “free”, TV signals to rural or mountainous areas. At the time, there were only a half dozen TV channels.

TCI was one of the pioneers of, and ultimately the largest company in, what is now known as the cable television industry. (It is now part of AT&T.) I still remember decades ago when John Malone, it’s then CEO and the “king of cable,” claimed that there would one day be “500 cable channels,” a fantastic imagining at the time. Well, it’s now reality and this plethora of channels needs an enormous amount of content, much of it cheap entertainments portrayed as news supplied by talking heads and the endless stream of politics and politicians.

It is also interesting to note that the development of cable television followed on the heels of the expansion of the presidential primary election process that began in the 1970s. As some of you will remember from textbooks, in 1910, Oregon was the first state to create what was known as a “presidential preference primary.” Apparently, however, only a dozen states had primaries as late as 1968, so the nominees were actually picked at the conventions. And 1968 was the year of the infamously chaotic Democratic convention in Chicago. I was not living here then, but I remember watching it in anger on my black and white, rabbit-ears-enabled television on one of the three national channels then available.

Following that dysfunctional convention, the Democratic Party established a commission led by George McGovern which led to a dramatic expansion of the primary process by both parties.

Decades later, we have a primary process that unwittingly feeds the cable television beast. No competitive race, little to report. Hence, the reluctance to report that it’s over, even when it is.

This reluctance is bi-partisan. In March 2008, over three months before Obama was declared the winner, in one of my favorite Obamagrams (#22), I introduced my baseball analogy to help explain the complex Democratic nominating process. In it, I wrote “Barack’s lead in Pledged Delegates is virtually insurmountable…”

In June 2008, when the declaration was made, in Obamagram #28, I wrote in hindsight, “…despite all the media blabber, this game was over on February 19 – about 3 ½ months ago.”

While there are no Republican delegates to count yet, it is apparent to me that Gov. Romney is the only serious candidate with a plausible chance of prevailing. And, while providing a potentially stiffer challenge for President Obama, Gov. Romney is a safer candidate for the country.

However, if nominated, Gov. Romney will face several challenges, some of his own making. Most importantly, he has held himself out as a businessman who knows how to “create jobs.” But, this will probably prove to be his Achilles heel. Bain Capital, which he ran and the source of this claim, is what was originally called a “leveraged buyout” firm, made possible by the creation, in the 1980s, of “junk bonds” (the equivalent of sub-prime mortgages or Greek sovereign debt). I remember well the start of this phenomenon because TCI issued them. These financial partnerships — now called “private equity” firms — buy companies but never operate them, “restructure” them, sometimes by breaking them into pieces, usually shrinking their labor forces, and boosting their investors’ returns through the liberal use of “leverage,” or debt. Occupy Wall Street will have a field day with all of this since the term “Wall Street” now encompasses nearly any financial enterprise – and because I would suppose that Gov. Romney is in the .01%, not merely the 1%. The irony of a debt-reduction candidate who made his fortune using abundant leverage will also not be lost on voters.

These issues notwithstanding, Gov. Romney is the only serious, temperamentally moderate, and mature candidate in the field other than John Huntsman who obviously has no traction. The groping for someone perfectly conservative and highly charismatic will probably go on for the next two months or so, but none of us should be fooled by this reality TV series.

That having been said, there is something deliciously ironic about the Republicans needing to settle on what could be seen as a “compromise” candidate. That dreadful word, compromise. In fact, the result will bring new meaning to the term “Grand Compromise.”

Please, as always, pass it on. Please also note that I have a new website — www.obamagrams.com.



#61 Great Economic Expectations

Hello Everyone,

Almost precisely four years ago, I wrote Obamagram #11 when my wife, Penny Sebring, and I were literally “driving home from a productive and memorable three days in Grinnell, IA.” We had canvassed and observed a caucus there and enjoyed the jubilation of the huge victory celebration in Des Moines.

 Now that voting has begun, I want to start my comments about this election cycle by offering some thoughts about why the mood has changed from three years ago, when Barack Obama was inaugurated and expectations couldn’t have been greater.

Some of his supporters have told me that they are “disappointed” in the President. I have been wondering why that is when I don’t feel that way – quite to the contrary, I feel very good about his performance in office.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that the two primary causes for this feeling are continuing high unemployment rates and unrelenting partisan wrangling in Washington. I’ll wrestle with the first cause here, leaving the second for another time.

Human beings, perhaps particularly the American variety, seem to like simple answers to complicated problems, and, in the process, conflate correlation with causation. For example, when a president is in office, his policies must be responsible for economic conditions whether good or bad. We expect the president to be our “economist-in-chief.”

I’m not “disappointed” in Pres. Obama because I don’t expect a president – or anyone else – to be able to manage the economy. It’s just not possible. I do expect presidents and certain government institutions to intervene occasionally to avoid economic catastrophe. In 2008-9, presidents Bush and Obama and the Fed did just that. And, it worked. The stimulus plan passed by Congress probably helped, too. But that’s as far as it goes in my mind.

Ironically, we’ve never had an economist as a president and precious few have been businessmen: Andrew Johnson, a tailor; Herbert Hoover, a mining engineer; Harry Truman, famously a bankrupt haberdasher; and the presidents Bush, both oilmen. Several presidents were planters or farmers.

It’s the Economy, Stupid
James Carville, the over-the-top Democratic strategist/entertainer, is famously credited with telling Pres. Clinton, with respect to his reelection, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

I find it puzzling that in a reputedly free-market, capitalist system, that voters seem to expect, even demand, a single man to, “fix” the economy whenever it teeters.

I would submit that it is beyond the understanding, let alone the power, of any person or group of people to fix an economy. As I wrote in # 58, it appears to me that economies are prime examples of “emergent systems” – highly complex, dynamic phenomena that have no central controllers. Like ant colonies or stock markets.

As a result, we seem to know how to prevent the death of an economy, but no one can heal a sick economy. Not even “the most powerful man in the world.”

In an unguarded moment, apparently Gov. Romney admitted as much in Saturday night’s debate when, contrary to the premise of his entire campaign, it was reported that: “‘the president is trying to take responsibility for the economy,’ Mr. Romney said in response to a question about signs of improving job growth. ‘It’s like the rooster taking responsibility for the sunrise — he didn’t do it.’” Just my point. But the Governor can’t have it both ways. (By the way, I stick by the prediction in my last Obamagram that Gov. Romney will win the nomination, but if he doesn’t, Pres. Obama will have an even easier time winning reelection. I have also watched the trailer of the half-hour video attacking Gov. Romney for his leadership of Bain Capital. It is excessive, inaccurate, and unfair. There are issues to be discussed in this area, however, and I may address them after the entire video becomes available.)

Governments can directly create public sector jobs, but they have precious little to do with permanent private sector job creation. Even my liberal friends get confused when they claim that FDR “created jobs” – no he didn’t, not in the private sector. The pity in all of this is that most voters will not let any president admit that. They must all play along with the job creation charade.

Economies, like deities, act in mysterious ways. “It’s the economy, stupid” is not so much a strategy as an admission of powerlessness – that a politician’s fate as determined by the economy is largely a matter of fortune.

Presidential Approval Ratings
There does, however, seem to be a correlation between unemployment rates and “presidential approval ratings.”

Pres. Reagan has been the Republican icon for the past quarter century yet he, too, was bedeviled by economic turmoil. In #47, I quoted Tom Wicker of the New York Times who wrote in November 1981, “Ronald Reagan appears to be falling victim to dashed expectations…[he] came home from his August vacation to witness a September in which ‘economic activity fell off a cliff,’ in the phrase of Edward Yardeni, an economist for E.F. Hutton. ‘The magnitude of the drop,’ he added, ‘was larger than anyone anticipated.’ That could as well have been said of the unwarranted expectations the President had created…”

The unemployment rate peaked at nearly 11% in December 1982, exceeding the latest peak of slightly over 10% in 2009. It seems that the 1982 peak was intentionally caused by the Fed under Paul Volcker to break the back of hyper inflation. It seems not to have been caused by Pres. Reagan’s actions, although, to his lasting credit, he did nothing to interfere with the Fed’s actions. Nonetheless, he was apparently blamed for it as his presidential approval ratings plunged to 35% in January 1983 – lower than Pres. Obama’s nadir of 37% last September. Fortunately for Pres. Reagan, the unemployment rate dropped rapidly in the months that followed, and he was reelected in 1984. Cause and effect? Who knows.

Unfortunately, the myth of presidential responsibility for economic conditions has been perpetuated by many presidents who’ve had the good fortune to be in office during prosperous times and couldn’t resist taking credit for them. Carville’s client, Pres. Clinton, did just that during the 1990s when the economy benefited from the Soviet collapse, the tech bubble, and innumerable other factors equally beyond his control. Pres. Obama will not be able to resist taking credit, too, if the unemployment rate continues to fall. The myth will live on.

Interestingly, if Carville’s claim is true, and we’re simply seeking an economist-in-chief, why is the only Republican running on his “business” credentials, Gov. Romney, able to muster only 25% ratings in the national polls? Must be more complicated than simply economics.

Creating Jobs
Another myth all politicians seem required to embrace is that small businesses are the primary engines of job growth. Not so say economics professors Erik Hurst and Benjamin Pugsley of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in a study released last year:

…the vast majority of small business owners do not expect to grow, report not wanting to grow, never expect to innovate…

When asked at the time of their business formation, most business owners report having no desire to grow big and no desire to innovate along observable dimensions…

In 2007, there were roughly 6 million firms with paid employment; 90 percent of these firms had fewer than 20 employees.

Think about your tailor, dry cleaner, or doctor.

By way of contrast, during decades as an investment banker, I worked with several innovative, fast-growing companies. But, I never heard any business owner or manager say that they were in business to “create jobs.” They were in business to do many other things, like getting a return on their investment or converting an idea into a viable product or service. And, they wanted to hire as few people as possible in the process.

In the end, it may be catchy to say “It’s the economy, stupid.” And, presidents may appear to hold onto their jobs or lose them because of the vicissitudes of the economy. I, for one, think it should be more complicated than that.

I will discuss the second apparent cause for disappointment with Pres. Obama – his inability to achieve bi-partisanship – in my next Obamagram.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com.


#62 The United States of America

Hello Everyone,

In my estimation, last night’s State of the Union address was first rate and quintessentially Obama. 

 Communitarian. Moderate.  Thoughtful.  Nuanced.  Wordsmithed.  Energetic.  Positive.

I think it is always good practice to read what we have heard.  It deepens our understanding.  So, the speech is attached.  It is a great read – like the President’s books.

I liked this speech so much because it recapitulates and expands upon the forward-looking global-economic-competition theme he introduced in his State of the Union a year ago.  Perhaps I liked this one, too, because it comported with the unsolicited advice I offered last September in #58: “Out-educate, Out-innovate, Out-build.” http://www.obamagrams.com/group-7/out-educate-out-innovate-out-build/  While he didn’t specifically repeat that phrase, those were the themes of this wonderful address.  I hope he uses this shorthand going forward.

It reminded me once again why I am so thankful Barack Obama is our president.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


adobe pdf fileState of the Union Address 1-24-12

#63 Blocking Obama’s Bipartisan Promise

Hello Everyone,

In a recent Obamagram, I argued that there may be two primary causes why some are “disappointed” in President Obama – while I am not at all – high unemployment rates and unrelenting partisan wrangling in Washington. I will first make a brief comment here on the former, but will then mostly comment on the latter.

With respect to unemployment, I said “that it is beyond the understanding, let alone the power, of any person or group to fix an economy…not even ‘the most powerful man in the world.’” It was gratifying for once to hear similar sentiments expressed in public by a respected observer. Last week, on the News Hour, David Brooks was refreshingly blunt:

…they all say, I created this job, I created that job…it’s completely bogus. Presidents do not control the economy under their watch. They can have a marginal impact in extraordinary circumstances. But it has to do with a lot more complicated things than they are responsible for. And that is true with Obama. That’s true with Bush. It’s true probably with Herbert Hoover…

While there are undoubtedly manifold reasons for the partisan impasse that political scientists will discuss for years to come, there are a few that seem readily apparent already. They can be encapsulated by the old saying, “it takes two to tango.” And, Sen. Mitch McConnell and lobbyist Grover Norquist simply refuse to dance.

I have said from the beginning that I support Barack Obama because of his “intellect, worldview, and temperament.” But, even this pragmatic, collaborative, emotionally-intelligent president cannot alone restore bipartisanship.

The Republican leadership, cleverly and cynically, recognized from the start that they could unilaterally deep-six Obama’s campaign promise. And, frustrate his supporters in the process.

Sen. McConnell’s Goal
Sen. Majority Leader McConnell blatantly revealed his strategy a mere month after the President was inaugurated, when he famously asserted, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Sen. McConnell’s top priority wasn’t to “fix the economy” or “create jobs” – of course, he couldn’t have delivered, even if he wanted to. But, he could deliver on an intention to withhold the “bi.” Just link arms and say no to everything. Brilliant. Sen. McConnell did have it within his power to cause this president to fail to deliver on one of his central campaign promises.

Mr. Norquist’s Pledge
Similarly, another roadblock was being systematically constructed to stymie this president – Grover Norquist’s insidious “no new taxes” pledge. Mr. Norquist is the Republican lobbyist who founded a group called “Americans for Tax Reform” in 1985.

When I finally looked up the details, I was shocked to learn how effective Mr. Norquist has been in almost singlehandedly creating gridlock and blocking bipartisanship. As some of you already know, the British newspaper The Guardian reported that Mr. Norquist has gotten a written pledge from 238 (over 98%) of the 242 sitting Republican members of the House. That’s over 54% of all House members. No wonder Speaker Boehner can’t deliver on any bargain, grand or not.

And, Mr. Norquist got the same pledge from 41 (over 87%) of the 47 sitting Republican senators. It is no wonder that Sen. McConnell can back up his own pledge to block the President at every turn because 41 senators can block any action in that body, given the requirement that 60 of the 100 senators must vote to end a filibuster.

It is impossible to negotiate and compromise if the other side has already assumed a non-negotiable posture. No wonder the President can’t deliver on his bipartisan pledge. It was dead on arrival.

Commitment and Consistency
Mr. Norquist’s campaign to secure “no new taxes” pledges was as inspired as it was cynical. He must have read Robert B. Cialdini’s book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Dr. Cialdini claims that prominent theorists “viewed the desire for consistency as a central motivator of our behavior.” Moreover, he contends that once we take a stand and go on the record, “there is a natural tendency to behave in ways that are stubbornly consistent with [that] stand.”

By the way, that is probably also the real genius behind candidate Obama’s campaign in 2007-08 to elicit $2 donations from millions of voters. Getting a voter to make a psychological commitment to his candidacy is much more important than the money.

Of course, I am subject to that same commitment and consistency psychology, too.

The powerful McConnell-Norquist duo has been enormously effective in frustrating the President’s bipartisan inclination and promise. I, for one, am not disappointed in him. I’m disappointed in them.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


#64 Delegates Still Matter

Hello Everyone,


As the Republican nominating process progresses, I’m trying to understand its delegate-selection mechanics and what they tell us about the eventual outcome. As I said about the Democrats in 2008, I think all of us should be paying attention to delegate counts, not to who “wins” which state or how the “momentum” shifts from week to week.

Last November, I wrote in Obamagram #60:

Jon Stewart, my primary news source, beat me to it. Last week, he declared Mitt Romney the Republican nominee. I was about to do the same in this space. So, I’m happy to endorse Stewart’s declaration…If by some fluke, I am wrong, and one of the other candidates wins the nomination, I am also happy to be the first to declare President Obama the winner of the general election.

Now, if that specific fluke (an even more apropos term with Sandra Fluke’s emergence; evidently it’s pronounced differently) turns out to be Sen. Santorum, the President may have lucked out again, as he did when he faced Alan Keyes in his Senate race in 2004.

I still believe that delegates matter, a subject I first wrote about in January 2008 in #14, which bore that title.

In June 2008, in #28, I wrote, “Using my now well-worn baseball metaphor…this game was over on Feb. 19,” after Obama had opened up an insurmountable delegate lead. For months, I had been arguing that the nomination process is like baseball, not tennis, where only the cumulative score matters, not who “wins” each inning or each set.

But, math doesn’t sell newspapers or attract eyeballs. And, counting delegates is complicated. So, the news coverage continues to focus on which Republican candidate has “won” which state – based simplistically on the state-wide plurality of primary voters or caucus-goers.

It turns out that the Republican nominating rules this time are even more complicated than the Democratic rules were last time. If you care to follow along, there is one easy way to do that. For those who aren’t already users, the New York Times has a wonderful, interactive site: http://elections.nytimes.com/2012/primaries/delegates

I suggest you save it as a “favorite” on your computer or “add it to your home screen” on your iPad, as I have done. Then, refer to it after each primary or caucus to check the delegate count, rather than listening to the misleading palaver about who “won” or “lost” each state.

On the Times’ site, if you scroll down from the first screen shot, you will see the state-by-state results and future schedule. Of the states that have voted, you can see in the delegate distribution that some states are winner-takes-all and others are proportional. Most interestingly, if you click on a state’s name on the left side of the screen, it gives you a pretty full description of how the delegates were allocated. If you put your curser over “Details” on the right side of the page, a pop-up box provides more information on how the count is determined. You’ll see that the process is endlessly complicated. Nonetheless, remember that delegates are all that matter.

If by some fluke (my new favorite word), Gov. Romney fails to reach the 1144 required delegate threshold to secure the nomination, I suspect that the President will have an easier time being reelected. I say that both because the negativity of the Republican nominating process will have gone on too long and, perhaps, a much weaker candidate than Gov. Romney will have been selected.

So, stayed tuned to the Times’ site, follow the delegate count, and tune out the rest of the noise. Delegates matter.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


#65 Even the New York Times is Confused

Hello Everyone,

On Wednesday, the New York Times, of all places, unwittingly proved the point of my last Obamagram. Delegates matter, not so-called “wins.”

Misleading Headlines
The Time’s lead story on Wednesday – “Santorum Takes 2 Races in South; Romney is Third.” Dead wrong. Boy, are they confused.

Having worked for a long time in a large organization, I know what it’s like when the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.

Delegates Count
True, Sen. Santorum “won” pluralities in 2 (Alabama and Mississippi) of the 4 (including Hawaii and American Samoa) contests on Tuesday.

But, that’s far from a true picture. If the Time’s reporters had just visited their own website –http://elections.nytimes.com/2012/primaries/delegates — they would have noticed that:

1. Gov. Romney collected 7 more delegates on Tuesday than Sen. Santorum did.

2. Gov. Romney actually won Mississippi – 14 delegates to 13 (click on “Miss.” on the website to learn why – it’s complicated.)

Remember all of the hullabaloo in 2008 when it was reported that Sen. Clinton “won” Texas when Sen. Obama actually got more delegates there than she did? History repeats itself.

By outscoring Sen. Santorum on Tuesday (remember #22: “Baseball Rules”), Gov. Romney lengthened his lead. He now has almost twice as many delegates as Sen. Santorum – 495 to 252.

It is still apparent that Gov. Romney will win even though the media needs to drag this out and keep everyone entertained.

Personal Note
My wife, Penny Sebring, and I had the privilege of attending the state dinner at the White House on Wednesday for Prime Minister Cameron. It was only the fourth state dinner of the Obama presidency.

One vignette is symbolic of this extraordinary evening. We walked off the White House grounds at midnight and ran into Orin Kramer, a prominent member of the National Finance Committee, and his guest. Then, Penny and I stopped to take a picture in front of the Treasury Department building, which is gorgeous at night. Orin’s guest asked if we wanted her to take our picture. That led her to ask how we got to know the President. In responding, I told my oft-repeated story that prior to getting to know Barack Obama “I hadn’t been truly excited about any presidential candidate for 40 years – not since 1968 and Bobby Kennedy (Obamagram #15).” She said that she loved that story – because she is one of Bobby’s daughters – Kerry Kennedy! We then gave her a ride to where she was staying. A fitting ending to a magical evening.

Penny says it was the best dinner we’ve ever been to. I agree. Yes, it was elegant and very special for all the obvious reasons. However, it was “the best” because it was not only the kind of highly diverse group (in all the senses of that term) that we like, but because there was a common sense of high purpose and good cheer among almost all of those in attendance, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, American and British alike.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


#66 Make No Sudden Moves

Hello Everyone,

For over three years, we have heard venom spewed forth by some at our first African-American president. And, with the passage of time, many of us forget how remarkable it was that he was even elected.

The national discussion that has been provoked by the troubling and sad death of high school student Trayvon Martin conjures for me two memories that tie that tragedy to this presidency.

In Dreams from My Father, a young Barack Obama wrote a few sentences that have stuck with me for almost nine years now.

It was the start of my senior year in high school…I told [my mother] not to worry, I wouldn’t do anything stupid. It was usually an effective tactic, another one of the tricks I had learned: people were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied; they were relieved to find a well-mannered young black man…

After Barack Obama announced his candidacy, several African-Americans, even some total strangers upon seeing my campaign wristband or button, told me how they feared for his safety.

In an interview with Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes in February 2007, Michelle Obama was asked if she feared for her husband’s safety. She responded, as you may remember, “I don’t lose sleep over it because the realities are that, you know, as a black man Barack can get shot going to the gas station.”

Then, on Friday, when asked about Trayvon Martin, the President poignantly noted, as you know, “…if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” without ever directly mentioning race.

Like the President, we should withhold our judgment while being alarmed at the initial failure to investigate.

Whatever the ultimate truth is about Trayvon Martin’s death, it is important for all of us to seek to emulate the President’s even-handed temperament – “one of the tricks I had learned” – avoiding stereotypes, escalating rhetoric, and misplaced anger.

Some of you may recall that from the beginning, I have supported Barack Obama because of his “intellect, worldview, and temperament.”

With his election, we have come a long way. But, with this shooting, we are all reminded that we still have a long way to go.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


#67 Freedom and Collective Responsibility

Hello Everyone,

Rick Santorum suspended his campaign and, recently, Ron Paul did, too. Therefore, Mitt Romney has won the Republican nomination.

Of course, this result has been apparent for months. Last November, in #60, I wrote:

Jon Stewart, my primary news source, beat me to it. Last week, he declared Mitt Romney the Republican nominee. I was about to do the same in this space. So, I’m happy to endorse Stewart’s declaration.

So, over the last six months, I’ve been following Gov. Romney with some interest. In fact, as a University of Chicago trustee, I was a member of the contingent that welcomed him when he spoke there last month. (Pictorial evidence of that is available at the end of this commentary that is now posted on my Obamagram website: www.obamagrams.com)

In following Gov. Romney, I have noticed, as I’m sure many of you have, that one of his most visible campaign slogans is the single word “Freedom.” That’s the word that frequently appears on his podia. It was also the centerpiece of Ron Paul’s campaign.

While freedom is an obvious foundational American value, I think it always needs to be balanced by the similarly fundamental American values of “equality” and “collective responsibility.”

Last month, I attended a talk that my friend Danielle Allen gave in a neighborhood proximate to UChicago, where she was formerly Dean of the Division of the Humanities – she’s now at the Institute for Advanced Study. Her talk was sponsored by the Civic Knowledge Project, which she founded a few years ago as a branch of the Humanities Division. Its mission is to develop and strengthen community connections on Chicago’s South Side.

Danielle’s talk was about her careful reading of the Declaration of Independence – the subject of her next book.

While we’ll have to wait for the book for her cogent and complete argument, on this occasion she handed out copies of the Declaration – only four letter-sized pages – and led us through her analysis of it. For those who haven’t memorized the Declaration and want to follow along, I’ve attached a copy.

You may be as surprised, as I was, to remember that it only contains five substantive paragraphs, a total of about one page. The rest of it is a list of “injuries and usurpations” the colonies endured at the hands of the king and the names of its 56 signatories.

Obviously, the Declaration is a cry for freedom. But, to Danielle’s eyes as a political scientist and to mine as a layman, it is also a communitarian treatise, grounded in shared aspirations, mutual responsibilities and claims of equality.

Look at some of its key words and phrases.

In the first paragraph, we find “one people” and “equal station.”

In the second paragraph, there is the famous assertion that “all men are created equal,” having “unalienable rights,” as well as “to secure these rights, Governments are constituted.”

Following the list of grievances, the last three paragraphs repeatedly use the collective “We.” It concludes with the most communitarian of all vows – “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” Not exactly a partisan or selfish thought.

In the fervor of a presidential campaign, it will serve us well to remember that from the beginning, our forefathers understood the preciousness of freedom, but also knew that it must be balanced with the pursuit of equality and a commitment to collective responsibility.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


adobe pdf fileDeclaration of Independence




#68 Non Sequitur — LBOs Create Jobs

Hello Everyone,

Ever since last November, when it was clear to me that Gov. Romney would be the Republican nominee, I have intended to write a commentary on so-called “private equity” investing since he asserts that his experience with it will make him better able to “create jobs,” if he wins the presidency.

Many of you know a lot about private equity – some much more than I do – but many don’t. For the latter group, if you want to understand why I make this assertion, it will take some work. So here goes.

Maximizing Returns, Not Jobs
In summary, Gov. Romney’s leadership of Bain Capital had little, if anything, to do with job creation. His job at Bain Capital was to increase productivity to produce returns for his firm, himself, and his investors, not to create jobs. In fact, those objectives – productivity and jobs – are, by definition, in tension.

While it is never this simple, maximizing returns for investors is largely, although not exclusively, a function of maximizing productivity – that is output per man hour. There is every incentive to increase the numerator and decrease the denominator. The fewer man hours required to do a job, the better the result for investors.

Bain Capital Does Mostly Leveraged Buyouts
“Private equity” is a catch-all term for a certain “asset class” or a particular type of investment management firm or investment strategy. Some define it to include “leveraged buyout (LBO),” “venture capital,” and “growth capital” investment strategies, all of which involve the purchase of equity securities which are privately issued, not publicly traded, hence the term “private equity.”

All of these strategies play a very legitimate and useful function in a capitalist economy. Some of my friends in these types of investment firms are among the brightest, most earnest, and most generous people I know. Those characterizations probably also apply to Gov. Romney.

While some define private equity firms broadly, I tend to think of them primarily in terms of their particular underlying investment strategies, be it LBOs, venture capital or growth capital. Bain Capital primarily pursues an LBO strategy, as I understand it.

 Bain Capital apparently also makes some venture capital investments — investments in emerging companies like The Home Depot once was. That is a decidedly different activity. While the motivation is the same – maximizing return on investment – young companies do so by growing. And, if they grow, they will naturally “create jobs.” But, do not be confused — that is a by-product of growth, not an objective of the business. And, most importantly, Bain Capital neither owns nor controls these companies. Therefore, it cannot claim to have “created jobs” through them.

Leveraged Buyouts
LBOs probably started in a very small way in the 1950’s. One entity would buy most or all of the equity or stock, usually of a publicly-traded company, using generous amounts of debt, or “leverage.” This investment strategy got a big boost in the 1980s when Michael Milken was instrumental in popularizing what were then called “junk bonds.” Generally, they were bonds issued by publicly-traded corporations which were rated “less than investment grade” – the loose equivalent of “sub-prime mortgages” today. They later assumed a less pejorative label – “high yield bonds.”

Today, investment companies which employ an LBO strategy, like Bain Capital, raise funds from investors, usually in the form of limited partnerships, to buy controlling interests in what are usually described as “underperforming” companies. In order to boost the investment returns to themselves and their investors, these LBO firms will usually, but not always, cause the companies they buy to borrow amounts several times their net worths – that is, take on substantial amounts of “leverage.” Hence, the “leveraged buyout” label.

They will also usually change the management, reorganize the business, frequently sell certain operations, and seek to improve business processes, among other things, all to improve the company’s productivity, both to produce fees for the LBO firm and ultimately to maximize the return on its and its investors’ investment.

Productivity is a “Jobs Killer”
A simple way to think about productivity is to consider the now-ubiquitous and humble Automated Teller Machine, or ATM. When it was first introduced, most bankers predictably jumped at the opportunity to increase productivity. There may have been some bankers who, in order to save jobs, resisted replacing some human tellers with machines. But, that didn’t, couldn’t, or shouldn’t last long. ATMs are good for investors and the economy. All of us can think of innumerable examples of similar productivity improvements which have inevitably cost jobs.

Therein lies the fundamental flaw in Gov. Romney’s claim that he “knows how to create jobs” by dint of his LBO experience. As the leader of an LBO firm, he was quite properly focused on improving productivity to maximize returns on investment. That’s a legitimate and useful activity in a market economy. But, its objective is not to “create jobs.”

In my more than three decades in investment banking, and my many years as an investor, I never saw a single business plan or a public offering prospectus which included “job creation” as a business objective. Their objective is to maximize the investors’ returns by, among other things, improving productivity. Overall, that is healthy – actually an imperative – for the economy. It’s just bad for employment. Because job creation and productivity are always in tension – a healthy tension – but in tension nonetheless.

Non Sequitur
President Obama understands this. He’s not calling Gov. Romney a failure as an investor or immoral as a person because his investment firm’s purpose was to produce investment returns, not to create jobs. President Obama is simply pointing out the non sequitur – Gov. Romney’s central claim that because he was an LBO investor he “knows how to create jobs.”

If you want to delve deeper, look at how President Obama answered a question about Gov. Romney’s experience at a press conference last month (see Attachment A). I, like many, would prefer that his campaign commercials refrained from inappropriately demonizing private equity or LBOs. As an amateur, I can only presume that the pros think that voters will not take the time to consider the more complex type of argument I’m making here. They’re probably right. And, what is the difference from Gov. Romney’s campaign demonizing, usually inaccurately, “Obamacare,” or assailing President Obama’s “abysmal economic record,” when knowledgeable people know that no president can “fix the economy,” let along do it quickly after a financial crisis?

If you want to go even further, I have annotated a recent David Brooks’ (my favorite columnist, as my long-time readers know) piece on this subject to clarify some things I think that even he doesn’t understand (see Attachment B).

My fundamental point here is a simple one. Gov. Romney’s experience in leveraged buyouts at Bain Capital is simply not a basis for claiming that he “knows how to create jobs.” He does know how to produce returns on leveraged investments, but that’s a different kettle of fish. And, running an LBO firm is not a primary qualification for being president. But, his best qualification – governing as a “Massachusetts moderate” – would have barred his nomination. Now, he’s left to run on a non sequitur.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


adobe pdf fileAttachment A – Press Conference – 5-21-12


adobe pdf fileAttachment B – How Change Happens – Brooks – NYT – 5-21-12

#69 Beginning to Understand Health Insurance

Hello Everyone,

On the heels of the Supreme Court ruling largely upholding the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” it’s time to follow up on Obamagram #45, “Health INSURANCE Reform,” written in September 2009, prior to the passage of the Act. http://www.obamagrams.com/group-5/health-insurance-reform/

In that piece, I made several observations, which I still believe to be valid:

1) The Act is largely about health insurance reform, not about all-encompassing health care reform.

2) Major changes are extremely difficult to achieve, as Machiavelli wrote in 1513, “…there is nothing more difficult to execute…than to introduce a new order of things…”

3) We humans are wired to instinctively react to what we perceive as “emotional emergencies,” at which time fear overrides reason, what Daniel Goleman calls an “amygdala high jacking.” The prime example of this was lies spread by Sarah Palin and others about the Act’s non-existent “death panels.”

4) Voters are reluctant to “look it up” – that is to do the fundamental work to make fully-informed judgments rather than being swayed by opposing politicians and scary T.V. commercials.

Opposition to the law that was passed has largely, but not exclusively, rested on two arguments – it’s unconstitutional and it’s unpopular. The first one has now been summarily dispatched.

And, I would submit that the second is largely a circular argument. The opposition would have us believe that the law should be repealed because it is unpopular when its unpopularity in the polls is in the main a result of the opposition’s mammoth effort to make it so, primarily through fear and deception. Death panels. Government takeover. Interfering with the doctor-patient relationship. Socialized medicine.

So, in a series of Obamagrams, I will seek to shed a little light on this continuing debate, recognizing that it cannot possibly be comprehensive. Or, entirely persuasive.

First, let me make some comments about the history of health insurance. Then, in subsequent editions I will describe what might be called “Romneycare” – the precise precursor to “Obamacare” – and then examine some of the actual provisions of the federal law.

In order to understand the Patient Protection [note how those words are overlooked] and Affordable Care Act, it is important to have some understanding of how health insurance has evolved in the United States. That evolution was, in part, particular to our free enterprise, capitalist system. By understanding it, we can begin to rationally discuss the contortions (I will write more on “contortions” in other Obamagrams) we are now going through to extend coverage to all citizens.

History of Health Insurance in the United States

According to Prof. Melissa Thomasson, an economic historian at Miami University, here is a thumbnail history of the development of health insurance in the U.S. in the twentieth century. I am hereafter redacting her article from EH.net with emphasis added: http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/thomasson.insurance.health.us

Prior to 1920 [in my 96-year-old father’s lifetime!], the [poorly-developed] state of medical technology generally meant that very little could be done for many patients…that most patients were treated in their homes…[and] most people had very low medical expenditures…As a result, most people felt they didn’t need health insurance. Instead, households purchased “sickness” insurance — similar to today’s “disability” insurance — to provide income replacement in the event of illness.

The low demand for health insurance at the time was matched by the unwillingness of commercial insurance companies to offer private health insurance policies. Commercial insurance companies did not believe that health was an insurable commodity because of the high potential for adverse selection [only the sick buy coverage] and moral hazard. They felt that they [couldn’t] calculate risks and write premiums accordingly. For example, people in poor health may claim…to be healthy [when they] sign up [individually] for health insurance.

The fact that people generally felt actual health insurance (as opposed to sickness insurance) was unnecessary prior to 1920 also helped to defeat proposals for compulsory, nationalized health insurance in the same period…although many European nations had adopted some form of compulsory, nationalized health insurance by 1920.

As the twentieth century progressed, several changes occurred that tended to increase the role that medicine played in people’s lives and to shift the focus of treatment of acute illness from homes to hospitals…the growing acceptance of medicine as a science led to the development of hospitals as treatment centers and helped to encourage sick people to visit physicians and hospitals.

1920-1940: Blue Cross and Blue Shield
As the demand for hospital care increased in the 1920s, a new payment innovation developed at the end of the decade that would revolutionize the market for health insurance. The precursor to Blue Cross [hospital insurance] was founded in 1929 by a group of Dallas teachers who contracted with Baylor University Hospital to provide 21 days of hospitalization for a fixed [periodic premium]. The Baylor plan developed as a way to ensure that people paid their bills…Blue Cross [was later] designed by the American Hospital Association to [in part] reduce price competition among hospitals.

Blue Cross plans also benefited from special state-level enabling legislation allowing them to act as non-profit corporations, to enjoy tax-exempt status, and to be free from the usual insurance regulations. Despite the success of Blue Cross and pre-paid hospitalization policies [like Baylor’s], physicians were much slower in providing pre-paid care. Blue Cross [hospital insurance] and Blue Shield [insurance for physician services] developed separately, with little coordination between them. Physicians worried that a third-party system of payment would lower their incomes by interfering with the physician-patient relationship and restricting the ability of physicians to price discriminate. However, in the 1930s, physicians [were pushed] to develop their own pre-paid plans…[as] advocates of compulsory health insurance looked to the emerging social security legislation as a logical means of providing national health care. Compulsory [national] health insurance was even more anathema to physicians than voluntary [commercial] health insurance. It became clear to physicians that in order to protect their interests, they would be better off pre-empting both hospitals and compulsory insurance proponents by sculpting their own plan…These [state and local] physician-sponsored plans ultimately affiliated and became known as Blue Shield in 1946.

1940-1960: Growth in the Commercial Health Insurance Market
After the success of Blue Cross and Blue Shield in the 1930s…commercial insurance companies decided to enter the market for health coverage. Demand for health insurance increased as medical technology further advanced, and as government policies encouraged the popularity of health insurance as a form of employee compensation.

Employer-Provided Group Insurance
Blue Cross and Blue Shield were first to enter the health insurance market because commercial insurance companies were reluctant to even offer health insurance early in the century. As previously mentioned, they feared that they would not be able to overcome problems relating to adverse selection, so that offering health insurance would not be profitable. The success of Blue Cross and Blue Shield showed just how easily adverse selection problems could be overcome: by focusing on providing health insurance only to groups of employed workers [this is a key point that I’ll return to in subsequent commentaries]. This would allow commercial insurance companies to avoid adverse selection because they would insure relatively young [i.e., not retired], healthy people who did not individually seek health insurance…the market for health insurance exploded in size in the 1940s.

Discriminatory Pricing
The success of commercial companies was aided by two factors. First, the competitiveness of Blue Cross and Blue Shield was limited by the fact that their non-profit status required that they community rate their policies. Under a system of community rating, insurance companies charge the same premium to sicker people as they do to healthy people. Since they were not considered to be nonprofit organizations, commercial insurance companies were not required to community rate their policies. Instead, commercial insurance companies could engage in experience rating, whereby they charged sicker people higher premiums and healthier people lower premiums.

Wage Control Loopholes During World War II
Offering insurance policies to employee groups not only benefited insurers, but also benefited employers. During World War II, wage and price controls prevented employers from using wages to compete for scarce labor. Under the 1942 Stabilization Act, Congress limited the wage increases that could be offered by firms, but permitted the adoption of employee insurance plans. In this way, health benefit packages offered one means of [paying] workers [more]…in 1949, the government ruled…that the term “wages” included pension and insurance benefits. Therefore, when negotiating for wages…union[s were] allowed to negotiate benefit packages on behalf of workers as well. This ruling, affirmed later by the U.S. Supreme Court, further reinforced the employment-based system [that is at the heart of our system today].

Perhaps the most influential aspect of government intervention that shaped the employer-based system of health insurance was the tax treatment of employer-provided contributions to employee health insurance plans [and] employers did not have to pay payroll tax on their contributions to employee health plans [and] in 1954…employer contributions to employee health plans were [declared] exempt from employee taxable income.

The 1960s: Medicare and Medicaid
By the 1960s, the system of private health insurance in the United States was well established. In 1958, nearly 75 percent of Americans had some form of private health insurance coverage. By helping to implement a successful system of voluntary [commercial] health insurance plans, the medical profession had staved off the government intervention and nationalized insurance that it had feared since the 1910s [and still fear today]. The AMA also was a vocal opponent of any nationalized health insurance programs [as it is today]. The AMA had played a significant role in defeating proposals for nationalized health insurance in 1935 (under the Social Security Act) and later in defeating the proposed Murray-Wagner-Dingell…bill in 1949. [That] bill would have provided comprehensive nationalized health insurance to all Americans.

While serious proposals were not put forth during the Eisenhower Administrations of 1952-1960 …proponents…realized that the only way to enact government-sponsored health insurance would be to do so incrementally — and they began by focusing on the elderly.

Medicare passed in 1965 [consisting] of two parts. Part A represented the compulsory hospital insurance program the aged were automatically enrolled in upon reaching age 65. Part B provided supplemental medical insurance, or subsidized insurance for physicians’ services.

In contrast to Medicare, Medicaid [also passed in 1965 as part of amendments to the Social Security Act] was enacted as a means-tested, federal-state program to provide medical resources for the indigent. The federal portion of a state’s Medicaid payments is based on each state’s per capita income relative to national per capita income. Unlike Medicare, which has uniform national benefits and eligibility standards, the federal government only specifies minimum standards for Medicaid; each of the states is responsible for determining eligibility and benefits within these broad guidelines. Thus, benefits and eligibility vary widely across states. [End of Prof. Thomasson’s history.]

Hopefully, this will provide a foundation for my discussion of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in subsequent Obamagrams. We can see how medical advances, adverse selection, discriminatory pricing, employer-based groups, for-profit insurance companies, and government-based insurance – among many other factors – have affected the evolution of health insurance in the U. S.

Next time, I will write about Romneycare.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


#70 “Romneycare”

Hello Everyone,

 In my last Obamagram, I promised to summarize the 2006 Massachusetts law that served as the model for the new federal health insurance law. I’ll attempt to do that here.

While some choose to call the new federal law “Obamacare,” others call the Massachusetts law “Romneycare.”  When running against Gov. Romney for the presidential nomination, Gov. Tim Pawlenty went a step further, cleverly coining the term “Obamneycare” to highlight the close connection between the two.  As you read more, you will see that the law that Gov. Romney signed was the precise precedent for the federal law no matter how much he wants to disavow it now.  

In seeking to further understand both Romneycare and Obamacare, I have found an accessible, albeit secondary, source:  Health Care Reform.  This is a paperback book which uses an illustrated, comic-book-like format to explain the basic provisions of both laws.  Importantly, it was written by Jonathan Gruber.  On the cover, he is described as “a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the health care program at the National Bureau of Economic Research.  He was both a key architect of Massachusetts’ ambitious health reform effort and consulted extensively with the Obama Administration and Congress during the development of the Affordable Care Act.”  Nathan Schreiber illustrated the book, which is available on Amazon.   

It seems to me that Prof. Gruber is a particularly valuable source because he is not only an M.I.T. economist, but he advised both parties in designing both laws. 

You will see, as I try to distill the essence of Prof. Gruber’s book, that the two laws are remarkably similar.  So similar, in fact, that it must be uncomfortable for Gov. Romney to go through his continuous contortions to deny that. 

As you read in my last Obamagram on the history of health insurance, our system in the United States is a hybrid of private market insurance, which is tied overwhelmingly to employment, and government-provided insurance.  The prevalence of private-market, employer-sponsored insurance is the principle reason that we have for decades gone through our own contortions trying to provide insurance coverage to all citizens, whether or not they are employed or can afford it. 

Our uninsured citizens are mostly a) not employed, b) employed by an entity which doesn’t offer insurance, c) already sick, or d) unable or unwilling to buy insurance as an individual because it’s too expensive.    

The advantages of buying insurance as part of a group (such as an employee group) are numerous, including: a) an insurer can “average its risks” by covering a range of people, from very sick to very healthy, and b) a group of insureds has purchasing power and can acquire expertise in dealing with both health insurance companies and health care providers such as physicians and hospitals.  Therefore, purchasing health care products and services in a group is much more efficient and less expensive.  

Buying an individual health insurance policy poses a major problem for most people for reasons that mirror these.  Insurance companies logically do everything in their power to avoid what they call “adverse selection.” Simply put, that means healthy individuals would, in their self interest, wait to buy insurance until they get sick or have an accident, if they could.  Obviously, this would bankrupt insurance companies.  And, not only do most individuals lack expertise, they lack purchasing power. 

Massachusetts has apparently addressed these problems with the law it passed just six years ago under the leadership of Gov. Romney. 

Here is how Prof. Gruber summarizes that law in his book (emphasis added): 

          The goal was to create a three-pronged plan. 

The first step was to fix the problems that have broken the nongroup insurance market and left the uninsured with nowhere to turn for fairly priced insurance coverage. 

We [in Massachusetts] moved to a system where insurance companies couldn’t charge folks more because they were sick or exclude them from coverage for preexisting conditions.  [This is why the federal law is called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.] 

If we could guarantee that folks wouldn’t just buy insurance when sick [adverse selection], then insurers could price fairly – knowing that they were getting the average risk. 

This meant that, as step two, there had to be an individual mandate…a requirement that [all] people obtain health [insurance] coverage [the healthy as well as the sick], just as [all] drivers are required to insure their cars. [The mandate means that everybody is required to join a “group,” whether or not they are able to join an employer-sponsored one.] 

Otherwise, people will “free ride” on the system and buy insurance only when they are sick, and the system will fall apart.   

If you don’t buy insurance, the state imposes a tax penalty on you.  [Remember the Supreme Court decision.] Currently, that penalty varies from $240 a year to $1,100 a year, depending on income.  

The intent is to cover everyone, so we’re going to make insurance available at a reasonable price.  People can pick the coverage they can afford, just like car insurance. [Of course, people can keep the coverage they already have.] 

And if it’s not affordable, they’re subsidized.  That’s step three.   

What we ended up with in Massachusetts was a simple plan that addresses the three primary issues and is a comprehensive way to deal with health care.   

1)      We forced insurance companies to price fairly to healthy and sick alike.
2)      To make this possible we imposed the requirement that all buy insurance. 
3)      And to make that requirement humane we made insurance affordable for lower-income families.

Children were covered for free by the state’s Medicaid program.  Adults whose income was below 300% of the federal poverty line had their insurance heavily subsidized. 

The other major innovation in Massachusetts was the health connector [like the insurance “exchanges” in the federal law]. This is the notion of giving consumers easy-to-understand, one-stop shopping for insurance options.  Comparison shopping also encourages greater competition among insurers. 

You can see this for yourself at https://www.mahealthconnector.org/portal/site/connector/menuitem.a6bd9ea72595da2ea87b5f57c6398041/?fiShown=default

[I recommend visiting this site and exploring it.  Use zip code 02052, a Boston suburb, if you need one.  This will give you a feel for the much-discussed exchanges required by the federal law.  Not scary at all.  But, you will also see how expensive insurance is, a fact largely hidden from view for those who receive it as a “benefit” of employment.] 

So what effects did the Massachusetts reform have on health care?  

1)      The number of uninsured people dropped by two-thirds.
2)      Private insurance grew as employers started offering insurance morefrequently to help employees comply with the law.
3)      There was a dramatic reduction in nongroup insurance prices.  For the typical person buying insurance in the nonemployer market, the
          price fell by more than 50% relative to national trends.
4)      The cost of the program is not over budget.
5)      The implementation of the requirement to buy insurance went smoothly, with more than 98% of taxpayers filing the required forms in the
          very first year.
6)      The program is popular with state residents.  Almost three-quarters of them supported the reform.   

Here is another link that I recommend: “The Top Ten Facts about Massachusetts Health Care Reform.”  https://www.mahealthconnector.org/portal/binary/com.epicentric.contentmanagement.servlet.ContentDeliveryServlet/About%2520Us/News%2520and%2520Updates/2011/Week%20Beginning%20March%2006/10%2520FACTS%2520POSTER.pdf 

The fact that as many as three-quarters of Massachusetts residents support their new law now that it is operational reminds me again of Machiavelli’s observation, offered in 1532, “…there is nothing more difficult to execute…than to introduce a new order of things…This…partly stems from…the skepticism of men, who do not truly believe in new things unless they actually had personal experience of them.”

 As you can see, Romneycare is the precise precedent for Obamacare, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. They are indeed Obamneycare.

In Obamagram #69, I inadvertently left the impression that the AMA is a regressive organization when I quoted an economic historian observing that “the medical profession has staved off government intervention and nationalized health insurance…since the 1910’s.”  My friend, Dr. James Madara, CEO of the AMA, correctly pointed out to me that the AMA has frequently been a proactive reform leader, including supporting universal coverage since 2006.  Thank you, Jim.

 Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com



#71 “The Second Coming of Sarah Palin?”

Hello Everyone,

Usually, I am reluctant to effectively “tweet” about events as they unfold – impetuous reactions can be of little value or may even be ill-advised.

Therefore, I will confine my first reaction to the selection of Cong. Paul Ryan to my unique interpretation of a well-timed observation that Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post made last night on PBS’ Newshour: “ …from the Democrats’ point of view, [Ryan’s choice] would be like the second coming of Sarah Palin…[but] in a very different way…”

I agree.

But, I want to be very clear that Cong. Ryan bears NO resemblance to Gov. Palin in knowledge, competence, experience, and innumerable other ways.

At this point, I agree with Ms. Marcus only because Gov. Romney’s decision reminds me of Sen. McCain’s Hail Mary in 2008 in that it might tell us something about Gov. Romney’s assessment of his competitive situation. (Cong. Ryan’s selection may also prove to be a lodestone around Gov. Romney’s neck much as Gov. Palin’s was around Sen. McCain’s. That will become clearer soon. That, in turn, would be a belated birthday gift to President Obama. Appropriately, we are going to the birthday event at the President’s house in Hyde Park tomorrow.)

Almost four years ago, on September 29, 2008, I wrote the following in Obamagram #35 (here is a link to it:http://www.obamagrams.com/group-4/pollster-mccain-and-the-politics-of-distraction/).

“…Sen. McCain’s decisions are a much better indicator of the state of the race than any poll. In fact, he is our best pollster…

“Sen. McCain has now made 2 highly risky decisions that clearly signaled that he knew he was going to lose unless he took some drastic steps: 1) his    pick of Sarah Palin, and 2) last week’s supposed “suspension” of his campaign [to address the looming financial crisis]. A single data point may be an aberration, but 2 data points indicate a clear trend…

“I expect that Sarah Palin will prove to be an increasingly heavy lodestone around Sen. McCain’s neck in the next 36 days.”

Cautious and analytical people like Gov. Romney seldom make rash decisions, unlike the self-styled “maverick” John McCain. So, this crucial decision for Gov. Romney may be telling us something of even greater import than Sen. McCain’s did in 2008. We’ll see in the coming weeks if there is a second data point that confirms that.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com



#72 A Risky Rationale — Romney’s Choice of Ryan

Hello Everyone,

Late last night, after sending # 71, I read Nate Silver’s piece in the New York Times on Cong. Ryan’s selection.

As many of you know, Mr. Silver writes the FiveThirtyEight blog for the Times. Its title is derived from the total number of electoral votes available in a presidential election, the winner needing 270 to reach a majority. (Incidentally, as a University of Chicago trustee, I’m proud that Mr. Silver is a member of the Class of 2000.)

We agree that Gov. Romney probably made this risky selection because he thought he was behind and had to take a very uncharacteristic chance: “When is it rational to take a big risk?…When a prudent candidate like Mr. Romney picks someone like Cong. Paul Ryan…as his running mate, it suggests that he felt he held a losing position against President Obama… [My model], as of Friday [the day before the announcement], estimated that Mr. Obama was about a 70 percent favorite to win re-election. Betting markets and bookmakers [Gov. Romney may give some credence to such ‘markets’]…have also had Mr. Obama ahead, generally giving him between a 60 and a 65 percent chance of winning a second term.” This seems to be a repeat of McCain-Palin in 2008 as I wrote about at that time and harkened back to in # 71.

The full FiveThirtyEight column is attached.

We also seem to agree on polls: “Polls are imperfect instruments, especially at a time when even the best pollsters struggle to get more than 10 percent of Americans to return their calls.”

Mr. Silver goes on to say that Mr. Ryan is a risky choice because his politics are extreme: “… there is evidence that presidential candidates who have more ‘extreme’ ideologies (closer to the left wing or the right wing than the electoral center) underperform relative to the economic fundamentals…Various statistical measures of Mr. Ryan peg him as being quite conservative. Based on his Congressional voting record, for instance, the statistical system DW-Nominate evaluates him as being roughly as conservative as Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota…Mr. Ryan is the most conservative Republican member of Congress to be picked for the vice-presidential slot since at least 1900.”

It is confirming to read someone who is much more knowledgeable than I am arguing that this risky VP pick was made because Gov. Romney believes he’s far behind in the race. Just like the seeming rationale behind Sen. McCain’s “game changing” pick of Gov. Palin in 2008. Very different candidates; very similar rationales.

This does have a feeling of being “too good to be true,” however. Time will tell if it is.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


adobe pdf file                               A Risky Rationale Behind Romney’s Choice of Ryan – FiveThirtyEight – NYT – 8-11-12

#73 The 47% Worldview — from Parodied to Pilloried

Hello Everyone,

My promise of another commentary on Obamacare will have to wait. More pressing matters have caught my attention.

In September 2008, during the closing months of the last presidential campaign, I interpreted two high-risk decisions by Sen. McCain as indications that he believed he was on the cusp of losing – the pick of Gov. Palin and the “suspension” of his campaign to intervene in the unfolding financial crisis with embarrassing consequences. (See Obamagram #35.) Remembering my grade school math, I argued that two points make a straight line, in that case pointing to his conclusion that he was losing.

I have now come to think that Gov. Romney is sending signals similar to Sen. McCain’s, but in this case there seem to be three high-risk decisions making a straight line. First, Gov. Romney’s out of character pick of the controversial Cong. Ryan. Then, last week, Gov. Romney’s decision to impetuously wade into a brewing foreign affairs crisis when the opposition in a political campaign normally defers to the incumbent on such sensitive matters. And, finally, Gov. Romney’s now infamous claims about the “47%” and, critically, doubling down rather than backing down.

Barring some truly catastrophic event, the die may be cast.

1.) Cong. Ryan
Cong. Ryan’s views are so controversial that the campaign is going out of its way to avoid discussing the particulars on his agenda. It seems like a big risk for a former Massachusetts moderate to select as his running mate an ideologue with Cong. Ryan’s views.

2.) Muslim World/Middle East
When asked last weekend if the situation in the Muslim world would have been different under a President Romney, as his campaign has claimed, the respected conservative commentator George Will said:

No. The great superstition of American politics concerns presidential power. And during a presidential year, that reaches an apogee and it becomes national narcissism. Everything that happens anywhere in the world we caused or we could cure with a tweak of presidential rhetoric.

By the way, you could substitute “the economy” for “the Middle East” and make the same observation about “the great superstition of American politics concerns presidential power” and our “national narcissism.”

Remember my comments on “emergent systems” in #58? They are dynamic and highly complex systems which are impossible to fully comprehend, let alone control. Applies to economics as well as foreign affairs.

More recently, Gov. Romney waded further into the thicket of Middle Eastern diplomacy. It was reported that, based on the now-infamous video, “he suggested that a two-state solution for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians – longstanding United States policy – was not feasible.” Another high-risk decision.

3). Pilloried for the 47%
The last straw was probably the “47%” video. After it appeared and was actually embraced by the candidate, the conservative David Brooks wrote, in a column entitled “Thurston Howell Romney” (see Attachment 1):

…as a description of America today, Romney’s comment is a country-club fantasy. It’s what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other. It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney.

Personally, I think he’s a kind, decent man [I’ve written before that I agree] who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not — some sort of cartoonish government-hater.

…Romney, who criticizes President Obama for dividing the nation, divided the nation into two groups: the makers and the moochers. Forty-seven percent of the country, he said, are people “who are dependent upon government…”

… he really doesn’t know much about the country he inhabits.

… Romney doesn’t know much about the culture of America. [Some people live in “gated communities.” Similarly, many have what I have come to call “gated minds.” They seldom interact with ordinary people, don’t really understand them, see them as “the other,” and close their minds to them.]

…Romney’s comments also reveal that he has lost any sense of the social compact. In 1987, during Ronald Reagan’s second term [you should know that I voted for Reagan twice], 62 percent of Republicans believed that the government has a responsibility to help those who can’t help themselves. Now, according to the Pew Research Center, only 40 percent of Republicans believe that.

…The Republican Party, and apparently Mitt Romney, too, has shifted over toward a much more hyperindividualistic and atomistic social view – from the Reaganesque language of common citizenship to the libertarian language of makers and takers…

Look at the Wikipedia page on “Thurston Howell” if you don’t get the reference. I didn’t. It’s a hoot.

It is both unseemly, and revealing, to hear a member of the .01% talking derisively about the 47%.

Some of you will remember that from the beginning, I have said that I support now-President Obama because of his “intellect, temperament, and worldview.” We now have a real insight into Gov. Romney’s intelligence (or his analytical capability or integrity; pick one) – he severely misinterpreted or distorted the “47%” data; his temperament – he recklessly thrust himself into the situation in the Muslim world; and, his worldview – he not only didn’t disavow his point of view on the 47%, he doubled down on it.

Some have called the comments on the 47% a “gaff.” I don’t think so. I think of gaff as a half-dozen words, carelessly uttered in an unscripted moment, for which the candidate immediately apologizes and seeks to correct. Like Sen. Obama’s “guns and religion” comment or George Romney’s “brainwashed” comment.

In this instance, Gov. Romney apparently believes what he said about the 47% because he has defended in public what he said in private. There is only one other plausible explanation – he really doesn’t believe what he said about the 47% — he was just telling the wealthy donors what they wanted to hear — but he couldn’t retract it without once again appearing wishy-washy. He was trapped. Either way, the comments are damning – and telling – and much more than a standard gaff.

This latest piece by an exasperated David Brooks is an extension of a truly hilarious parody he wrote in August during the convention entitled “The Real Romney.” (See Attachment 2)

At the time, I didn’t know what to make of it. Now I do. Here’s a snippet of it: “[His] teenage years were more turbulent. He was sent to a private school, where he was saddened to find there are people in America who summer where they winter. He developed a lifelong concern for the second homeless, and organized bake sales with proceeds going to the moderately rich.” I now wonder if that was really a parody, or did Brooks see then what we’re all seeing now? From parody to pillory in less than a month. Amazing. And, probably fatal.

Last November, in #60, I wrote that Gov. Romney would win the Republican nomination. Now, in September, based on these three pieces of evidence, it appears that he’s on the verge of losing the election, barring an unforeseen catastrophe. Of course, for all the obvious reasons, the media and both campaigns will attempt to convince us otherwise all the way to November 6.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


adobe pdf fileAttachment 1 – Brooks – Thurston Howell Romney – NYT – 9-17-12


adobe pdf fileAttachment 2 – Brooks – The Real Romney – NYT – 8-27-12

#74 Debates Don’t Matter Much

Hello Everyone,

The last few days of endless analysis of the first presidential debate has, I must admit, annoyed me.

 I have a decidedly minority opinion on presidential debates.  I don’t think they matter much.  Presidential temperament and authenticity does.  One of my friends said that Obama’s debate problem was that he was being “too presidential.”

 Remember that national polls don’t matter much, either.  In the 2008 Democratic primary, only delegates mattered, not the popular vote.  Likewise, only the swing states matter now.  President Obama is looking very good there.

Since the debates come in prime time – like American Idol, Hardball or WrestleMania – they seem to be judged largely on the basis of their entertainment value.  Who was more aggressive or passionate; who made the best eye contact; who landed the best zingers.  Indeed, who gave the best “performance.” 

On this latter point, I, too, would give the nod emphatically to Gov. Romney. In the flash of an eye, after a year and a half or longer pretending to be a Tea Party kind of guy, he was unashamedly back to playing the “Massachusetts Moderate.”  Quite a performance.  Largely fictional.

My wife, Penny Sebring, observed that Democrats criticize Gov. Romney for repeatedly morphing from one personality to another, trying to be someone he’s not, but when it comes to debates, Democrats want Obama to become someone he’s not.

Debates don’t matter much.  Look at the last primaries and the general election.

In September 2008, John Broder wrote a piece in the New York Times about Obama’s “uneven record as a debater” in the primaries (see Attachment 1).

Senator Barack Obama has shown himself at times to be a great orator. His debating skills, however, have been uneven.

Some of his chief strengths — his facility with words, his wry detachment, his reasoning skills, his youthful cool — have not always served him well and may pose significant vulnerabilities in the series of presidential debates that begins Friday, according to political analysts and a review of his earlier debate performances…

He exudes disdain for the quips and sound bites that some deride as trivializing political debates but that have become a central part of scoring them. He tends to the earnest and humorless when audiences seem to crave passion and personality. He frequently rises above the mire of political combat when the battle calls for engagement…

Those who watched his debate performances during the long primary season say he improved markedly from a fairly shaky start but never really mastered the form. [There were about two dozen debates in the 2008 Democratic primary.]…

One of Mr. Obama’s worst moments came in the first Democratic debate, in South Carolina in April 2007…

Perhaps Mr. Obama’s single worst debate moment came [in January 2008] in New Hampshire…

By the final debate of the primary season, on April 16 [2008] in Philadelphia, Mr. Obama was both more polished and at times exasperated by the process…

Last time I checked, Sen. Obama beat seven primary challengers, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, and Sen. McCain in the general.  Sen. Obama’s “uneven record” as a debater didn’t seem to matter much.

In Obamagram #6, in May 2007 – a full one and a half years before the election and after the first primary debates — I cited two incisive articles when writing:

Combined, these articles give us some perspectives on the depth and range of Barack’s intellect and his deliberative temperament.  You can see why eight-person, sound-bite debates are not his best forum.  As his wife, Michelle, is reported to have said, “It takes sixty seconds for him to clear his throat.” [I have been accused of that, too!]

One of those articles – the one from The New Yorker – gave us insights into Obama’s temperament, shedding light on the frequent criticism of his effectiveness as a debater (see Attachment 2):

[His] mode…is often called professorial…But “professorial” implies that he seems cerebral or didactic, and he doesn’t…Probably one of the reasons for this is that Obama seems not to attach much value to cleverness as such.  Even in law school, perhaps the place more than any other where sheer cleverness is prized and love of argument for its own sake is fundamental to the culture, he was not much interested in academic jousting.  No, Obama’s detachment, his calm…is less professorial than medical – like that of a doctor who, by listening to a patient’s story without emotional reaction…It is also doctorly in the sense that Obama thinks about the body politic as a whole thing…if you take unity seriously, as Obama does, then outrage does not make sense, any more than it would make sense for a doctor to express outrage that a patient’s kidney is causing pain in his back.  There is also, of course, a racial aspect to this.  “If you’re a black male, you don’t have to try hard to impress people with your aggression,” [a friend] says…

Obama’s calm is also a matter of temperament.  [Remember that from the beginning, I have written that I support him because of his “temperament, intellect and worldview.”] The first thing almost everybody who knows Obama says about him is how extremely comfortable he is with himself.  “He was almost freakishly self-possessed and centered,” [one of his law professors said.]…[It’s] like the unnatural stillness of someone able to lower his blood pressure at will.”…

He was grounded, comfortable in his own skin, knew who he was, where he came from, why he believed things,” a friend from Harvard says…

The David Brooks article I cited in #6 also helps to explain why Obama is not a great debater – he embraces nuance and complexity.  In 2007, when Brooks asked Sen. Obama out of the blue if he had read Reinhold Niebuhr, Sen. Obama quickly and adeptly synthesized Niebuhr’s philosophy (see #50), going on to say, “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain.  And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things.  But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.  I take away…the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”

In my opinion, Obama’s thinking is just too deep and his temperament is just too calm to consistently deliver a good debate “performance” for a prime time television audience.  But, the evidence so far suggests that it just doesn’t matter much. 

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com  




adobe pdf fileAttachment 1 – Broder – Obama Carries Uneven Record… – NYT – 9-23-08

adobe pdf fileAttachment 2 – MacFarquhar – The Conciliator – The New Yorker – 5-7-07

#75 Why the President Will Be Reelected and Why He Should Be

Hello Everyone,

As the clock winds down to Election Day, I feel the need to write about two things: 1) why I think President Obama will be reelected and 2) one of the primary reasons I think he should be.

Why President Obama Will Be Reelected

Last time, the presidential election seemed to be largely inspirational. I think it was also technical – especially in the primaries.  This time, I think the general election is largely technical. That’s why I think the President will win, even though it’s hard to be inspirational the second time around.

2008 Primary
In the 2008 Democratic primary, Sen. Obama and his team were singularly focused on amassing Pledged Delegates, even as his opponents’ or the press’ attention was diverted to all manner of other things.

I remember how in the 2008 primaries, which proved more determinative than the general, the Obama campaign exhibited a clearer understanding of the hybrid election/caucus process than its opponents and were incredibly disciplined and focused on aggregating Pledged Delegates, not Super Delegates or popular vote totals. They knew that Pledged Delegates were awarded proportionally, often by congressional districts or counties, unlike the Republicans who awarded delegates on a state-wide, winner-take-all basis. (See Obamagrams #22 and #22, written in March 2008, when I introduced my “Baseball Rules” analogy.)

Obama’s people focused on establishing more field offices in the right places and earlier than their rivals. It’s state-of-the-art on-line fundraising system was a source of money, but perhaps more importantly it served as a means to collect email addresses, recruit volunteers, and get real commitments for votes (once you gave any amount, even $2, psychology says you were probably hooked.) These were all the boring, blocking-and-tackling, nitty-gritty details which got virtually no press. As I recently heard someone say, it was a “technical” way to win a nomination.

On June 4, 2008, I wrote in #28:

On this morning after a milestone – when Barack went over the top in delegates and rightfully claimed the Democratic presidential nomination — it seems fitting to offer a brief coda.

It feels really good that the world now knows what I have suspected for 2 years and known for 3 ½ months – that Barack would win the nomination…

…despite all the media blabber, this game was over on Feb. 19 – about 3 ½ months ago.

Sen. Obama ultimately accumulated 52% of the Pledged Delegates to Sen. Clinton’s 48%.

2008 General Election
In the 2008 general election, the Obama team seemingly decided to run a national campaign unlike this time. In September 2008, I wrote in #32:

Switching to a football metaphor [from baseball] since it is almost fall; I think the real story in this election will be about the vast superiority of Barack’s “ground game.” I predict the media will have little to say about it. Too boring.

As the legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes knew, “3 yards and a cloud of dust” may be boring, but it certainly wins football games.

Employing the same community-organizing and social-networking skills they used to prevail in the primaries and caucuses, the Obama campaign once again has a vastly superior ground game. Barack has 2,400 people on his payroll, the great majority of whom are in field offices. He has more offices in Pennsylvania (60), and as many offices in Ohio (50) as Sen. McCain has nationwide (50.)

Sen. Obama won 54% of the popular vote but far exceeded the 270 electoral vote hurdle with 365, or 68% of the total.

2012 General Election
In this 2012 general election, President Obama and his team know that it is all about electoral votes. Getting to 270. Period. It’s not about the polls, the popular vote, T.V. debates, or anything else.

I think they will be as good at collecting electoral votes this time as they were at collecting Pledged Delegates last time.

The President may not like the system, but he didn’t set the rules for 2008, and he didn’t set them for 2012. But, he and his people have demonstrated that they learn the rules and play by them better than others. Three times in our history a president has won the Electoral College vote and lost in the popular vote – in 1876, 1888, and 2000. That is far from ideal, but those are the rules.

His campaign understands that electoral votes are awarded on a state-wide winner-take-all basis, unlike the 2008 Democratic primary. It understands that only 7 states matter, not 50. So, they’ve adapted. The central question is whether they have done that better than the Romney campaign.

In contrast to the famous (or famously wrong, in my view) admonition, “It’s the economy, stupid,” this time, “It’s about the electoral college, stupid.”

According to a recent article in The Atlantic (see Attachment), President Obama has more than 800 [field offices] across the country – concentrated, of course, in the swing states:

Romney commands less than half that number. In the swing states, the gap is stark…in what are generally considered the top three…Ohio, Florida and Virginia [President Obama has 298 offices compared to 117 for Gov. Romney]…

Four years ago, Barack Obama built the largest grassroots organization in the history of American politics. After the election, he never stopped building, and the current operation, six years in the making, makes 2008 look like “amateur ball”, in the words of Obama’s national field director Jeremy Bird.

Think, too, of the campaign’s emphasis on early voting, including the President’s very visible vote here in Chicago last week. I understand that in the swing states, in some cases, the campaigns are actually bussing supporters directly from rallies to early voting locations, another nuts-and-bolts tactic.

Because of all these factors, I believe that the President will be reelected next Tuesday, but I can’t prove it.

                                                                           Why The President Should Be Reelected
Last Friday night, I had the privilege of introducing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for a talk he gave at the University of Chicago. It reminded me again of President Obama’s relentless focus on education, just one of the many reasons I believe he should be reelected.

The Secretary spoke at a session of our newly-established UChicago Careers in Education Professions program, which I have helped to shape and support. Its purpose is to enable UChicago College students to explore the possibility of pursuing a career in education and, if interested, help them to reach that goal. Our large ambition is to truly professionalize teaching and related fields, by encouraging some of our best students to enter them, thereby enhancing the status of education careers.

It is noteworthy that Amherst College and Grinnell College are simultaneously starting or considering starting similar programs.

For some time, President Obama has said that the U.S. needs to “out-educate, out-innovate, and out-build” our competition. I wrote about that in #58 in September 2011. Some have complained that the President hasn’t proposed any “big ideas” for his second term. In my opinion, there are no bigger – or important – ideas than these, especially out-educate.

As many have said, and Secretary Duncan repeated on Friday night, education is the civil rights issue of our time. But, it is not only a social justice issue. It is an economic issue – the key to our global competitiveness and social mobility.

Like out-organizing your opponent in an election, betting on education is not a “new” or seemingly “blockbuster” idea. But, organizing and electoral votes win elections and education is the key to our economic future and social fabric.

All to say, I think that the President will be reelected on Tuesday and should be.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


adobe pdf file

 Attachment – The Atlantic – 10-2012


#76 Why Obama is a Great President

Hello Everyone,

Within minutes of sending #75 yesterday, a friend of mine, who is a writer and was managing editor of one of the country’s oldest and most thoughtful magazines, sent me a piece that appeared two days ago in New York magazine. It is entitled “The Case of Obama: Why He is a Great President. Yes, Great.” (See Attachment 1.)

Jonathan Chait makes a much better case for President Obama than I can. I share some of his history and agree with virtually all of his observations. Here’s one sample:

I decided to support Barack Obama pretty early in the Democratic primary, around spring of 2007.

…I have never felt even a bit of the crushing sense of disappointment that at various times has enveloped so many Obama voters. I supported Obama because I judged him to have a keep analytical mind, grasping both the possibilities and the limits of activist government, and possessed of excellent communicative talents. I thought he would nudge government policy in an incrementally better direction. I consider his presidency an overwhelming success…

What can be said without equivocation is that Obama has proven himself morally, intellectually, temperamentally, and strategically. In my lifetime, or my parent’s, he is easily the best president. On his own terms, and not merely as a contrast to an unacceptable alternative, he overwhelmingly deserves reelection.

Some of you remember that for years I have said I support Barack Obama because of his “intellect, temperament, and worldview.”

As my long-time readers know, I have long admired David Brooks for the sheer quality of his thinking and writing and for his restraint. So, I have often cited his work. I now have the honor of serving with him on the University of Chicago Board of Trustees, which he joined this year. I was with him at a board meeting yesterday. His piece entitled, “What Moderation Means,” was published on Oct. 25. It is a perfect complement to Chait’s article. I think it better describes President Obama than Gov. Romney who lately has tried to portray himself as a Massachusetts Moderate rather than the “severely conservative” candidate he portrayed himself to be during the Republican primary. (See Attachment 2.)

Both of these articles offer additional reasons for reelecting President Obama, and, again, I think he will be.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


#77 A Grand “Victory” Speech – Balancing Communitarianism and Personal Responsibility

Hello Everyone,

Tuesday’s great election victory was punctuated with a grand speech which was consistent with President Obama’s philosophy and previous speeches.

Following the State of the Union in January, I wrote the following in Obamagram #62:

In my estimation, last night’s…address was first rate and quintessentially Obama.

Communitarian. Moderate. Thoughtful. Nuanced. Wordsmithed. Energetic. Positive.

I think it is always good practice to read what we have heard. It deepens our understanding.

The same could be said of President Obama’s speech on election night. It was no ordinary victory speech. I commend its reading to you (see Attachment.) If you didn’t hear it, I also urge you to find it on YouTube.

In his Tuesday speech, the President continued to talk about the importance of communitarianism, in stark contrast to the libertarian, Ayn-Rand-influenced philosophy of Paul Ryan and, derivatively, Mitt Romney. At the same time, the President recognizes its limits.

In April 2010, I wrote #50: “Reading Niebuhr to Understand Obama.” In it I quoted both Reinhold Niebuhr himself and Andrew Bacevich considering Niebuhr, including this paragraph:

Communitarianism. “The concept of ‘the value and dignity of the individual’ of which our modern culture has made so much …is constantly threatened by the same culture which wants to guarantee it. It is threatened whenever it is assumed that individual desires, hopes and ideals can be fitted with frictionless harmony into the collective purposes of man.”

On Tuesday night, this is what the President said:

By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock or solve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward. But that common bond is where we must begin…

What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth.

The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.

Personal Responsibility
Balanced, as always, the President also said on Tuesday night:

You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours…But that doesn’t mean your work is done. The role of citizens in our Democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That’s the principle we were founded on…

The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights.

The President concluded:

I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.

Balancing communitarianism and personal responsibility. The grand and nuanced complexity of President Obama’s hopeful philosophy which has been consistently on public display for years, most recently on Tuesday night.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


adobe pdf file

   Election Night Acceptance Speech 11-6-12


#78 Ending Norquist’s Protection Racket

Hello Everyone,

The situation surrounding the so-called “fiscal cliff” cries out for comment. So, I thought I’d offer my two cents amid the avalanche of predictably conventional news coverage.

I don’t think this is only about revenues and spending cuts. I think it’s about restoring bipartisanship.

It seems to me that the President is – and should be – using this serious situation on the heels of his decisive re-election victory to finally end four years of Republican intransigence – their “just say no” strategy.

And, the key to that is to put an end to the protection racket that Grover Norquist has perpetrated on the U.S. Congress for years. (I use this terminology – which is unusually colorful for me in this space – intentionally.)

“Taxpayer Protection Pledge”
Mr. Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which has wreaked such havoc on our democratic processes, is astonishingly simple. It is all about tax rates and contains a mere sixty words. In two clauses, the pledge requires the signer to promise:

[1] to oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and/or businesses; and,

[2] to oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

That’s it! Sixty puny words. Causing such gridlock.

If you haven’t actually seen it, I urge you to take a look at the House version in the Attachment.

Previous Obamagram
About a year ago, I wrote in #63, “Blocking Obama’s Bipartisan Promise”:

… there may be two primary causes why some are “disappointed” in President Obama – while I am not at all – high unemployment rates and unrelenting partisan wrangling in Washington. I will…mostly comment on the latter…

While there are undoubtedly manifold reasons for the partisan impasse that political scientists will discuss for years to come, there are a few that seem readily apparent already. They can be encapsulated by the old saying, “it takes two to tango.” And, Sen. Mitch McConnell and lobbyist Grover Norquist simply refuse to dance…

The Republican leadership, cleverly and cynically, recognized from the start that they could unilaterally deep-six Obama’s campaign promise [to be bipartisan]…

Sen. McConnell’s Goal
Senate Majority Leader McConnell blatantly revealed his strategy a mere month after the President was inaugurated, when he famously asserted, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” [The Senator, Carl Rove, and the Republican Super PACs must be greatly disappointed.]

Mr. Norquist’s Pledge
Similarly, another roadblock was being systematically constructed to stymie this president – Grover Norquist’s insidious “no new taxes” pledge. Mr. Norquist is the Republican lobbyist who founded a group called “Americans for Tax Reform” in 1985.

When I finally looked up the details, I was shocked to learn how effective Mr. Norquist has been in almost singlehandedly creating gridlock and blocking bipartisanship. As some of you already know, the British newspaper The Guardian reported that Mr. Norquist has gotten a written pledge from 238 (over 98%) of the 242 sitting Republican members of the House. That’s over 54% of all House members. No wonder Speaker Boehner can’t deliver on any bargain, grand or not.

And, Mr. Norquist got the same pledge from 41 (over 87%) of the 47 sitting Republican senators…

As a result of the November elections, it is estimated that at least 20 fewer House Republicans will have signed the pledge, a decline of about five percentage points. Senate Republican signatories remain at 87%, although with two fewer seats. Both levels are still laughably high.

That dastardly pledge has become the centerpiece of Mr. Norquist’s reign of terror or extortion campaign. If you don’t sign it, he and his co-conspirators will actively seek to block your election, summoning opposing Republican candidates who have complied and raising money for them. The political equivalent of breaking your kneecaps. As you can see, he has been incredibly effective.

I believe the pledge has become the lynchpin of the Republican’s obstructionist strategy. Remove the lynchpin, the obstruction starts to collapse. That is why, in my opinion, President Obama is so doggedly focused on increasing tax rates, not just raising revenues, by ending President Bush’s “temporary” tax cuts for the “top 2%.” He is fighting to shred the pledge and return the bespectacled bully, Mr. Norquist, to his rightful obscurity. I am confident the President will prevail.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


adobe pdf file

   Attachment – Congressional_pledge(1)

#79 The Second Inauguration: Sharpening Communitarian Theme

Hello Everyone,

President Obama’s second inauguration was a memorable affair in my estimation, somewhat to my surprise. It was obviously a less historic occasion than the first, which I attended. But, I found this one, which I didn’t attend, to be remarkably coherent and moving – and the inaugural address may come to be seen as historic.

To my ear, the President made yet another, albeit more full-throated and unapologetic, case for communitarianism while recognizing its limits. I think there is now ample evidence that this notion is central to both his personal and governing philosophy.

In his address, the President used the words we, our, us, or together more than 155 times, and the word I just 3. Like the basketball he favors, the President views life as a team sport.

He also brilliantly sought to reclaim the founding fathers and our founding documents, just like he has reclaimed the American-flag lapel pin. And, he embraced the notion of “American exceptionalism,” but in a more nuanced and modern way.

Over the past three years, I have written about President Obama’s belief in the “communitarian” or in “communitarianism” on five separate occasions – in Obamagrams #49, 50, 62, 67, and 77. www.obamagrams.com

In #50, for instance, I wrote about the apparent influence that Reinhold Niebuhr has had on the President’s philosophy. In it, I cited two excerpts, among others, from Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History:

Excessive Individualism. “…our exaltation of the individual involves us in some very ironic contradictions. On the one hand, our culture does not really value the individual as much as it pretends; on the other hand, if justice is to be maintained and our survival assured, we cannot make individual liberty as unqualifiedly the end of life as our ideology asserts.”

Communitarianism. “The concept of ‘the value and dignity of the individual’ of which our modern culture has made so much …is constantly threatened by the same culture which wants to guarantee it. It is threatened whenever it is assumed that individual desires, hopes and ideals can be fitted with frictionless harmony into the collective purposes of man.”

In #67, I wrote:

Last month, I attended a talk [by] my friend Danielle Allen, [from] the Institute for Advanced Study. It was about her careful reading of the Declaration of Independence …Obviously, the Declaration is a cry for freedom. But, to Danielle’s eyes…it is also a communitarian treatise, grounded in shared aspirations, mutual responsibilities and claims of equality.

In #77, I wrote:

In his [re-election victory] speech, the President continued to talk about the importance of communitarianism, in stark contrast to the libertarian, Ayn-Rand-influenced philosophy of Paul Ryan and, derivatively, Mitt Romney. At the same time, the President recognized its limits.

The Speech
As always, I encourage you to also read what you have heard. President Obama’s inaugural speech makes clear his steadfast, long-held belief in action for the common good. Here are some excerpts. I urge you to read it carefully in its entirety (see Attachment 1).

Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution…What makes us exceptional – what makes us American – is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…

Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing…The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few…

Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character.

But we have always understood…that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action…Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.

…we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal…

That is our generation’s task – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American…Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time.

My fellow Americans, the oath I have sworn before you today…was an oath to God and country, not party or faction…

You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.

Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history…

The Poem
“One Today,” written by Richard Blanco, perfectly amplified the President’s theme in a most eloquent way. One sun. One light. One ground. One sky. One moon. Together. I urge you to read it again (see Attachment 2).


Tuesday was a day I will long remember for I, too, cherish the communitarian.

 Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


adobe pdf fileAttachment 1 – 2013 Inaugural Speech


adobe pdf fileAttachment 2 – 2013 Inaugural Poem


#80 The 501(c)(4) Scandal – Perversion, Not Profiling

Hello Everyone,

You haven’t heard from me for awhile – and some of you no doubt count that as a blessing.

But, amidst the hullabaloo of three recent political controversies (Benghazi, Associated Press and IRS), some of my more stridently-oppositional readers have ended their post-election silence and have been in touch.  Therefore, so should I.

I’m going to focus here on the IRS controversy surrounding so-called “501(c)(4) tax-exempt organizations”. Don’t stop reading, please.  This won’t be too deathly dull. 

The Real Scandal

The real scandal here is not the profiling of some tiny conservative groups by the IRS, as bad as that was, but the perversion of the tax code to avoid limits on political contributions and to hide the identities of those contributing to very large groups.

I do not intend to broadly defend the IRS.  But, I think we should be focusing on the real problem here, not simply on political theater.

Seeking Obstructions

The Republicans lost the last election. Many of their top issues in the last campaign seem to have lost their sting: the economy is growing and joblessness is declining (albeit slowly), housing is recovering and the deficit is shrinking.  Even the stock market indices are at all-time highs. 

No wonder the Republicans are eager to embrace these controversies as new ways to thwart the President.

The Internal Revenue Code

Section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code enumerates twenty-eight types of “nonprofit” organizations which are exempt from some federal income taxes.  They are identified by paragraph number.

Perhaps the most familiar are those that fall under paragraph 3 of this section or “501(c)(3) organizations”, such as foundations, colleges and religious institutions.  Our Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation, of which I am chair, is closest to home.

Most of us probably think that the two primary defining characteristics of “tax-exempt or nonprofit” entities – like those subject to section 501(c)(3) – are that a) contributions to them are generally deductible and b) their income is exempt from taxes.  That is not the case with all tax-exempt entities.

Section 501(c)(4)
The next paragraph of the Code – Section 501(c)(4) – is  the source of the current controversy.  The Code simply states that organizations benefitting from this paragraph must be “Civic leagues or organizations…operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare…[emphasis added] ” Those 3 words are the crux of the matter: “exclusively” and “social welfare”.  Elsewhere, the IRS confuses matters by defining “exclusively” as ”primarily”.  This doesn’t lessen the scandal.

Abuse of Tax-Exempt Status

As “The Nation” (an admittedly a liberal magazine) put it just last month:

The real scandal has been the blatant abuse of 501(c)(4) status by dozens of lobbyists and operatives who have set up such tax-exempt organizations as political slush funds to conceal money in political campaigns.  [They have] operated as Super PACs – raising and spending tens of millions…without disclosing a dime of their contributors. 

Violations of the Law?

In October 2010, Sen. Richard Durbin of my home state, wrote the following letter to the IRS Commissioner:

I write to urge the Internal Revenue Service to examine the purpose and primary activities of several 501(c)(4) organizations that appear to be in violation of the law.

One organization whose activities appear to be inconsistent with its tax status is Crossroads GPS, organized as a (c)(4) entity in June.  The group has spent nearly $20 million on television advertising specific to Senate campaigns this year [and over $70 million overall in 2012].  If this political activity is indeed the primary activity of the organization, it raises serious questions about the organization’s compliance with the Internal Revenue Code.


In addition to its tax-exempt status, an entity organized as a 501(c)(4) is not required to disclose to the public the sources of its funding…

I ask that the IRS quickly examine the tax status of Crossroads GPS and other (c)(4) organizations…

Clearly nothing came of the Senator’s request.

In today’s New York Times, in a column entitled “Promoting ‘Social Welfare’ by Defeating Gun Control,” Andrew Rosenthal sheds light on how “many 501(c)(4)s brazenly disregard this whole ‘primary activity’ thing.”  That’s the real scandal (see Attachment.)

Last month, The “Nonprofit Quarterly” wrote:

 …The 501(c)(4) regulation was enacted in 1958, an era with politics quite different from today’s…the parameters of politics have changed in just the last three years, not to mention over 50 years…there are organizations that should clearly be 527s [another section of the code] that …have to disclose their donors, but they’re choosing the option of being 501(c)(4)s in order to engage in political activities while keeping their donors secret…[it seems] like the IRS had “targeted” to use the word of the moment, small organizations like local Tea Party groups and others, but sidestepped taking on the big misusers of 501(c)(4) status, such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and its liberal Democratic counterpart, Priorities USA.


Politicians and the media should be focusing on “what appears to be violations of the law,” as Sen. Durbin put it, which are much more serious than the profiling charges. Some groups are clearly posing as “social welfare” organizations in order to attract unlimited donations to be used for political purposes while hiding the identities of their donors. 

In fact, this fiasco is far less about tax exemption than it is about obfuscation.

By contrast, when I make a donation to Sen. Durbin, I am limited to $2,600 per election cycle (primary and general) and my identity becomes part of the public record. I abide by the rules and have nothing to hide.

Profiling is bad. But, perversion of our tax laws inflicts far greater harm on our body politic. 

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com  


adobe pdf fileAttachment – Promoting ‘Social Welfare’ by Defeating Gun Control – Rosenthal – NYT – 6-4-13


#81 Context and Conversations About Race

Hello Everyone,

On the heels of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, I found the unscripted and highly personal comments offered by President Obama last Friday to be pitch perfect.


Coincidentally, my last commentary focused on what has been characterized as “political profiling” at the IRS. The racial profiling which is the centerpiece of the Martin/Zimmerman case is much more insidious and has been with us much longer.

The President has encouraged us citizens to continue our conversation about race. So, I’d like to add my small voice to it. It is something I think about literally every day as I go about the work I do with students on Chicago’s South Side and here in Evanston.

First, as always, I think it is useful to read the entirety of the President’s remarks, not just listen to snippets of them (see Attachment). For starters, they remind me of why I twice supported his election. As I have written repeatedly since before his first election, I am drawn to him because of his “intellect, temperament and worldview”. These qualities were once again vividly on display last week.

Make No Sudden Moves

On Friday night, Mark Shields said: “This was completely personal…and totally presidential at the same time.” That reminded me of Barack Obama’s profound revelation in Dreams from My Father. I wrote about it in 2008 in #35 and again in the early days of the Martin/Zimmerman tragedy in March of last year in #66:

It was the start of my senior year in high school…I told [my mother] not to worry, I wouldn’t do anything stupid. It was usually an effective tactic, another one of the tricks I had learned: people were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied; they were relieved to find a well-mannered young black man…

As David Brooks said last Friday about the President’s comments earlier that day:

I thought it was great…It was what the president was elected to be in 2008. It was the guy who sees a lot of conflict in the country, a lot of different points of view, and is able to corral them all…And so he explained the context [and] the way a lot of African-Americans are responding to it…He brought it all together in one unified package…He was restrained, he was responsible…He pointed some way down the road. And so I thought it was unifying. And when we think about Obama at his best, I think this is the sort of thing we think about…

The President said this about “context” earlier in the day:

…the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away… They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history…so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration.

Jim Crow and the Great Migration

It may be coincidental that the “One Book, One Chicago” selection this year is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Penny and I are currently reading it. It provides some of the context of which the President spoke.

It reminds us of the dehumanizing cruelty and extreme violence of what Wilkerson calls the American South’s Jim Crow caste system perpetrated for eighty years following the Civil War. It only ended in the 1960’s, when Penny and I were in our twenties and shortly after Barack Obama’s birth. Wilkerson writes:

Over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Great Migration would become a turning point in history. It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally to lay aside a feudal caste system. It grew out of the unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheer weight of it, helped push the country toward the civil rights revolutions of the 1960s.

The people did not cross the turnstiles of customs at Ellis Island. They were already citizens. But where they came from, they were not treated as such. Their every step was controlled by the meticulous laws of Jim Crow, a nineteenth-century minstrel figure that would become shorthand for the violently enforced codes of the southern caste system…

We commend to you this highly readable narrative about the travails of three southern “colored people” who migrated to northern cities in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, respectively. It provides the kind of context which the President has argued is essential to understanding the Trayvon Martin killing and its aftermath.

It also helps us to more fully understand the larger context in which the Obama presidency itself is situated.

Finally, in our continuing conversations about race, the President’s words last week rung true to me:

…ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com

Hello Everyone,

On the heels of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, I found the unscripted and highly personal comments offered by President Obama last Friday to be pitch perfect.


Coincidentally, my last commentary focused on what has been characterized as “political profiling” at the IRS. The racial profiling which is the centerpiece of the Martin/Zimmerman case is much more insidious and has been with us much longer.

The President has encouraged us citizens to continue our conversation about race. So, I’d like to add my small voice to it. It is something I think about literally every day as I go about the work I do with students on Chicago’s South Side and here in Evanston.

First, as always, I think it is useful to read the entirety of the President’s remarks, not just listen to snippets of them (see Attachment). For starters, they remind me of why I twice supported his election. As I have written repeatedly since before his first election, I am drawn to him because of his “intellect, temperament and worldview”. These qualities were once again vividly on display last week.

Make No Sudden Moves

On Friday night, Mark Shields said: “This was completely personal…and totally presidential at the same time.” That reminded me of Barack Obama’s profound revelation in Dreams from My Father. I wrote about it in 2008 in #35 and again in the early days of the Martin/Zimmerman tragedy in March of last year in #66:

It was the start of my senior year in high school…I told [my mother] not to worry, I wouldn’t do anything stupid. It was usually an effective tactic, another one of the tricks I had learned: people were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied; they were relieved to find a well-mannered young black man…

As David Brooks said last Friday about the President’s comments earlier that day:

I thought it was great…It was what the president was elected to be in 2008. It was the guy who sees a lot of conflict in the country, a lot of different points of view, and is able to corral them all…And so he explained the context [and] the way a lot of African-Americans are responding to it…He brought it all together in one unified package…He was restrained, he was responsible…He pointed some way down the road. And so I thought it was unifying. And when we think about Obama at his best, I think this is the sort of thing we think about…

The President said this about “context” earlier in the day:

…the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away… They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history…so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration.

Jim Crow and the Great Migration

It may be coincidental that the “One Book, One Chicago” selection this year is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Penny and I are currently reading it. It provides some of the context of which the President spoke.

It reminds us of the dehumanizing cruelty and extreme violence of what Wilkerson calls the American South’s Jim Crow caste system perpetrated for eighty years following the Civil War. It only ended in the 1960’s, when Penny and I were in our twenties and shortly after Barack Obama’s birth. Wilkerson writes:

Over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Great Migration would become a turning point in history. It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally to lay aside a feudal caste system. It grew out of the unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheer weight of it, helped push the country toward the civil rights revolutions of the 1960s.

The people did not cross the turnstiles of customs at Ellis Island. They were already citizens. But where they came from, they were not treated as such. Their every step was controlled by the meticulous laws of Jim Crow, a nineteenth-century minstrel figure that would become shorthand for the violently enforced codes of the southern caste system…

We commend to you this highly readable narrative about the travails of three southern “colored people” who migrated to northern cities in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, respectively. It provides the kind of context which the President has argued is essential to understanding the Trayvon Martin killing and its aftermath.

It also helps us to more fully understand the larger context in which the Obama presidency itself is situated.

Finally, in our continuing conversations about race, the President’s words last week rung true to me:

…ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


adobe pdf fileAttachment – Remarks on Trayvon Martin 7-19-13

#82 MLK and JFK in 1963

Hello Everyone,

On this date exactly half a century ago, I had returned to Amherst College for my senior year and, in the humid heat of August, for pre-season football practice (ok, I know the latter is hard to believe.)  I had returned to the bubble that was Amherst College in 1963 with TVs scarce, “long distance” phone calls prohibitively expensive, snail mail slow, and few other means of connecting with the outside world.  So, I barely noticed the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s speech that day. 

Less than two months later, President Kennedy came to the College to deliver what turned out to be one of this last speeches before he was assassinated less than one month after that.  I was sequestered for a football game that day, so I missed that one, too (although a picture of him at the podium continues to hang in my office.)  In part, he said this there:  

Privilege is here, and with privilege goes responsibility…it must be a source of satisfaction to you that this school’s graduates have recognized it…There is inherited wealth in this country and also inherited poverty. And unless the graduates of this college and other colleges like it who are given a running start in life–unless they are willing to put back into our society, those talents, the broad sympathy, the understanding, the compassion–unless they are willing to put those qualities back into the service of the Great Republic, then obviously the presuppositions upon which our democracy are based are bound to be fallible.

The problems which this country now faces are staggering, both at home and abroad. We need the service, in the great sense, of every educated man or woman…to make it possible for Americans of all different races and creeds to live together in harmony, to make it possible for a world to exist in diversity and freedom. All this requires the best of all of us.

I am still moved, as I’m sure most of you are, by what happened fifty years ago today.

And, while I have heard endless clips of the “dream” portion of Dr. King’s historic speech, I felt the need to go back and read it in its entirety – a habit of reading important speeches, not just watching them – a habit which I have shared with you before.

So, I have attached the copyrighted version of Dr. King’s text and urge you to read it (see Attachment 1).  It is as close to the spoken version as I can find – even though a few words are different, and it includes the “I have a dream” riff which was reportedly ad-libbed.

I have also attached a highly informative analysis of the speech’s genesis from today’s New York Times in case you haven’t seen it yet (see Attachment 2).

I commend both to you.   August 28, October 26, and November 22, 1963, will be days always firmly rooted in my memory; two of those days changed the trajectory of our country.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com  


adobe pdf file

 Attachment 1 – MLK Jr – I Have a Dream


adobe pdf fileAttachment 2 – NYT – The Lasting Power…8-28-13

#83 Machiavelli and the Exchanges

Hello Everyone,

Today, the health insurance marketplaces, or exchanges — the centerpieces of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – are open for business. As we all know all too well, opponents continue to try to torpedo this law and all that goes with it.  The law went into effect in March 2010, over 3 ½ years ago.

In trying to make sense of this relentless and vehement effort to oppose change, I thought it worthwhile to remember that human nature seems resistant to change.

In Obamagram #45, sent over four years ago, I wrote:

This debate [over the Act] also reminds me of a favorite quote from Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (published in 1513) about the difficulty of achieving change:

And one should bear in mind that there is nothing more difficult to execute, nor more dubious of success, nor more dangerous to administer than to introduce a new order of things; for he who introduces it has all those who profit from the old order as his enemies, and he has only lukewarm allies in all those who might profit from the new. This lukewarmness partly stems from fear of their adversaries…and partly from the skepticism of men, who do not truly believe in new things unless they have actually had personal experience of them. Therefore, it happens that whenever those who are enemies have the chance to attack, they do so enthusiastically, whereas those others defend hesitantly…

It will be interesting to see what we think of this law four years from now after we “have actually had personal experience of them.”

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com  



#84 Obama Channels Reagan

Hello Everyone,

 It has been quite awhile since I’ve been in touch.  Didn’t have a clear view on things.  Now, it is starting to get clearer.

 After President Obama’s State of the Union address, I’m feeling pretty good. 

Contrary to my past entreaties to read important speeches instead of just listening to them, I urge you to listen to this one, if you haven’t already.  

In reacting to it, my favorite intellectual pundit and fellow UChicago trustee David Brooks, likened President Obama’s approach to that of President Clinton.   

But, I was more reminded of President Reagan last night.  Optimistic, positive, and grip-breaking. 

I voted for candidate Reagan in 1980 because I thought the country needed a strong dose of optimism to lift it out of nearly two decades of turmoil (see Obamagram #21.)

As a layman, I associate President Reagan with two major accomplishments, 1) helping the country regain its self-confidence, buoyed by his deep sense of optimism, and 2) breaking the grip of hyper-inflation, setting off the longest economic expansion and bull market in decades.  Many also give him credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it couldn’t have been that simple.  And, breaking inflation was mostly Fed Chairman Paul Volcker’s doing.  So, when I think of President Reagan, I primarily think of the upbeat tone he set. 

I am now starting to think that President Obama is channeling President Reagan.  “Likeability” and “positivity” are powerful attributes for any president.  They have long been some of President Obama’s greatest strengths. “Yes we can.”  With all of his travails in 2013, his likability has slipped.  My guess is that he’s consciously trying to get it back. 

It is also his nature.  He isn’t mean-spirited, small-minded, vindictive, or confrontational. 

However, like President Reagan’s need to break the grip of high inflation, President Obama had to break the grip of a “just say no” oppositional party beholden to both an individual and a renegade faction.  In so doing, his approval ratings suffered (other factors also contributed, of course.) Contrary to his nature, he confronted Grover Norquist and broke his insidious no-new-taxes grip on the Republicans (#78).  And, then in a wonderfully ironic twist, the President “just said no” and let the Tea Party shut the government down. In the process, he has helped sensible Republicans, including the Speaker, begin to take their party back.  

Now, the President can return to being himself.  Make-no-sudden-moves, non-confrontational, looking-for-compromise Obama. 

I like that.  And, the country will, too. 

In our obsession with polls, I will also remind all of us that President Reagan, long the Republican’s icon, at times had lower approval ratings than President Obama has ever had.  President Reagan’s lowest rating was 35% in January 1983.  President Obama’s rating has never dipped that low and is currently seven points higher than that. 

And, finally, I will go out on a long limb with a prediction.  A decade from now, I believe that President Obama will also be primarily remembered for two accomplishments, 1) an entrenched and staunchly-defended “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” (don’t forget the enormous power of those first two words, think “pre-existing conditions”), and 2) major immigration reform.  His Reaganesque optimism and equanimity will also be remembered as helping us to recover from a major financial crisis – with a big assist from his own Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke.   

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com   



#85 Affirmative Brussels Speech

Hello Everyone,

For the last several months, I have watched as Republicans and pundits alike talk incessantly about how President Obama is so “unpopular.” Almost from day one, the Republicans have worked to make it so. Driving the President’s “approval ratings” to a level (currently 43% per Gallop) that approaches President Reagan’s ratings nadir (35%) is perhaps their singular accomplishment over the last five years. It’s hard to point to much else.

“Popularity” is an ephemeral notion. It’s not based on logic or subject to analysis. Note that since the President took office, the economy has recovered significantly, the unemployment rate is down from over 10% in 2009 to 7.6%, stock indices keep setting record highs, and both inherited wars have ended or are ending.  Were it not for the unrelenting assault by the opposition on virtually everything the President has done or tried to do, these ratings would undoubtedly be much higher, even given the faulty Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act website launch. In fact, enrollment has exceeded the Administration’s original goal of 7 million.

So, while puzzling about this popularity phenomenon — the elusive realm of impression and opinion — I return to what I told a Christian Science Monitor reporter in an interview on the floor of the Democratic convention in 2008: I back Mr. Obama because of his “intellect, temperament and worldview.” I still enthusiastically do. That conviction was reaffirmed once more when I listened to and then read the President’s speech about Russia, Ukraine, and world order in Brussels last week. [By the way, I think the world should start referring to the “BRIC” countries as “BIC” countries, as Russia changes national borders with the stroke of a (cheap) pen, ceding its right to be considered an emerging economic power.]

The entire transcript of the Brussels speech is attached. It’s well worth your time to read it. If you’d prefer to watch and listen, here is the YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVZWLqkBtf0

Here are some excerpts:

 …we meet here at a moment of testing for Europe and the United States and for the international order that we have worked for generations to build. Throughout human history, societies have grappled with fundamental questions of how to organize themselves, the proper relationship between the individual and the state, the best means to resolve the inevitable conflicts between states.

 And it was here in Europe, through centuries of struggle, through war and enlightenment, repression and revolution, that a particular set of ideals began to emerge, the belief that through conscience and free will, each of us has the right to live as we choose, the belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed and that laws and institutions should be established to protect that understanding…

 And those ideas eventually inspired a band of colonialists across an ocean, and they wrote them into the founding documents that still guide America today, including the simple truth that all men, and women, are created equal.

 But those ideals have also been tested, here in Europe and around the world. Those ideals have often been threatened by an older, more traditional view of power. This alternative vision argues that ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign. Often this alternative vision roots itself in the notion that by virtue of race or faith or ethnicity, some are inherently superior to others and that individual identity must be defined by us versus them, or that national greatness must flow not by what people stand for, but what they are against.

 In so many ways, the history of Europe in the 20th century represented the ongoing clash of these two sets of ideas, both within nations and among nations. The advance of industry and technology outpaced our ability to resolve our differences peacefully. And even — even among the most civilized of societies on the surface, we saw a descent into barbarism…

 I believe that over the long haul as nations that are free, as free people, the future is ours. I believe this not because I’m naive. And I believe this not because of the strength of our arms or the size of our economies. I believe this because these ideals that we affirm are true. These ideals are universal…

I say this as the president of a country that looked to Europe for the values that are written into our founding documents and which spilled blood to ensure that those values could endure on these shores. I also say this as the son of a Kenyan whose grandfather was a cook for the British, and as a person who once lived in Indonesia as it emerged from colonialism.

President Obama is highly popular with me.  Intellect, temperament, and worldview.

Please, as always, pass it on.

And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com



Attachment – Brussels Speech – 3-26-14 – Washington Post transcript

#86 Spending Down Approval Ratings

Hello Everyone,

A few hours after sending yesterday’s Obamagram on presidential approval ratings, I had the privilege of participating in a 22-person hour-long roundtable discussion with President Obama.  Valerie Jarrett, Rahm Emanuel, and David Axelrod were also there.

The president was calm and unhurried.  He looked young and fresh.  And, he was upbeat and energetic.  But, what struck me most, once again, was how knowledgeable and thoughtful he is.  On a wide range of subjects, both foreign and domestic, his knowledge was truly encyclopedic.

The juxtaposition of sending my Obamagram in the morning and joining this session in the afternoon caused me to remember an observation that I have heard or read either Mayor Emanuel or Mr. Axelrod say or write about President Obama’s view of approval ratings.  In this case, such ratings as they relate to health insurance reform.

Very early in his term, based upon his understanding of history, the President apparently said to one or both of them that most politicians think of getting reelected, not getting something big and strategic done – like extending health insurance to the uninsured and better protection to those already insured.  He supposedly said, in effect, I can put my high approval ratings on the shelf and admire them, or I can try to use them to get something big done.

And, so he has.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com



#87 Intellect, Temperament and Worldview

Hello Everyone,

It has been many moons since I have written one of these. I, like many of you, tire of the incessant negativity directed at our President.

The Republicans have been highly successful at stiffing all progress, getting very little done. At the same time, they have been brilliant in driving down President Obama’s approval ratings. He campaigned on “Yes We Can.” Their response: “No You Can’t.”

Now, on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, the President has announced that he is reluctantly taking us back to war.

As I’ve said from the beginning, I support him because of his “intellect, temperament and worldview.”

As the editors of The New Yorker wrote in 2008 (which I cited in #36 that year):

Yet it is Obama’s temperament—and not McCain’s—that seems appropriate for the office both men seek and for the volatile and dangerous era in which we live. Those who dismiss his centeredness as self-centeredness or his composure as indifference are as wrong as those who mistook Eisenhower’s stolidity for denseness or Lincoln’s humor for lack of seriousness.

I feel blessed that he is our leader at a time when the world faces an enormously complex dilemma in the Middle East. Thank God he possesses these qualities.

As for intellect, just read, or re-read, Tom Friedman’s piece which encapsulates the mindboggling complexity of the crisis (see attachment A):

After 9/11 that sort of “fire, ready, aim” approach led George W. Bush to order a ground war in Iraq without sufficient troops to control the country, without a true grasp of Iraq’s Shiite-Sunni sectarian dynamics, and without any realization that, in destroying the Sunni Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the Sunni Baathist regime in Iraq, we were destroying both of Iran’s mortal enemies and thereby opening the way for a vast expansion of Iran’s regional influence. We were in a hurry, myself included, to change things after 9/11, and when you’re in a hurry you ignore complexities that come back to haunt you later…

To defeat ISIS you have to address the context out of which it emerged. And that is the three civil wars raging in the Arab world today: the civil war within Sunni Islam between radical jihadists and moderate mainstream Sunni Muslims and regimes; the civil war across the region between Sunnis funded by Saudi Arabia and Shiites funded by Iran; and the civil war between Sunni jihadists and all other minorities in the region — Yazidis, Turkmen, Kurds, Christians, Jews and Alawites.

And, with respect to temperament, I suggest you read, or re-read David Brooks (see attachment B):

Moses, famously, tried to get out of it. When God called on him to lead the Israelites, Moses threw up a flurry of reasons he was the wrong man for the job…

The successful reluctant leader…is fervently motivated by his own conscience.

This kind of reluctant leader has some advantages over a full-throated, unreluctant crusader. Unlike George W. Bush in 2003, he’s [Obama’s] not carried away by righteous fervor. The successful reluctant leader can be selfless. He’s not doing the work because it’s the expression of his inner being. He’s just an instrument for the completion of a nasty job.

The reluctant leader can be realistic about goals…

The reluctant leader can be skeptical…

The reluctant leader can be dogged…

The reluctant leader can be collaborative…

If he [Obama] sticks to this self-assigned duty, and pursues it doggedly, he can be a successful reluctant leader.

It’s at times like these that I realize once again why I have long supported Barack Obama, and still do. Intellect, Temperament and Worldview.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com



adobe pdf file

Attachment A – Friedman – Ready, Aim, Fire – NYT – 9-2-14


adobe pdf file

Attachment B – Brooks – The Reluctant Leader – NYT – 9-11-14


#88 Professionalizing Teaching — An Economic Good

Hello Everyone,

Yesterday, Penny and I attended President Obama’s upbeat speech on the economy (the subject of my next essay) at Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium, just eight blocks south of our house.   The night before, I was honored to be one of nine guests at a dinner with the President and our friend, and his close confidant, Valerie Jarrett.

Just ten days before, Penny and I had returned from a trip to Finland.  We went with fifteen University of Chicago students and the leader of a new program there which is helping to address our country’s dire need to professionalize teaching.  We went to learn more about how Finland has attained world prominence for the performance of it schools.

In my mind, these three occasions are serendipitously linked.

As many of you know, Penny is a long-time educational researcher at UChicago, and I now spend the bulk of my time on school improvement, much of it at UChicago’s Urban Education Institute.

Over the last half-dozen years, I have come to realize that professionalizing teaching is central to improving our country’s educational outcomes which now lag much of the world’s.

The President has spoken about how increases in productivity and globalization are the root causes of our newly systemic problem of jobs and income growth.  He believes that we need to educate ourselves out of this hole. I whole heartedly agree. And, in order to do that, we need to make public school teaching a true profession which it cannot now consistently claim to be.

One component of President Obama’s education agenda addresses just that issue.  At this link, www.whitehouse.gov/issues/education/reform scroll down to “Strengthening the Teaching Profession (sic).” (It is unfortunate to see that this is the last item on the agenda; it should be the first.)

Talent or Status?
For me, the core question regarding professionalizing teaching in America is: how do we resolve the chicken or egg conundrum?   Which comes first: talent or status?

As some of you know, Finnish public school teachers have long enjoyed a public regard equal to or higher than that accorded doctors and lawyers.  Unlike in America, when Finnish college students tell their parents they plan to be teachers, the parents never say, “You just want to be a teacher?”

Even so, beginning a half century ago, Finland became much more intentioned about truly professionalizing teaching.  A major step in that direction was to require all teachers to have a research-based masters degree before they begin to practice – much like we demand that doctors and lawyers have graduate degrees in the U.S.

Admission rates to university teacher education programs in Finland are on a par with, and in some cases lower than, programs in medicine and law.  And, the teacher education admission process is far more rigorous than that employed here by any of our colleges, regardless of the field of study.

Three years ago, I helped to conceive of and fund a new “pre-professional” initiative which we named the UChicago Careers in Education Professions program (https://careeradvancement.uchicago.edu/uchicago-careers-in/education-professions). It is part of the University’s eight-program suite of cutting edge career advancement offerings. Simultaneously, I started parallel programs at Amherst (https://www.amherst.edu/campuslife/careers/amherst-careers-in/education) and Grinnell (http://www.grinnell.edu/academics/offices/careers-in-education).

These are small, but crucial, steps to attract more top talent from elite colleges into careers in public school teaching, not just short-term commitments.

I think we all need to encourage our school districts and governments at all levels and our leading colleges and universities to intensify their efforts to raise the standards for teacher preparation just as the President is doing.

Importantly, The University of Chicago has also gotten back into the business of educating teachers with its masters-granting Urban Teacher Education Program.  I hope that President Obama and many of you will encourage more of our best colleges and universities to follow UChicago’s example at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The mere acknowledgement that teaching teachers is a worthy activity for our most elite institutions will, in itself, help to confer status on the field.  That would be another big step toward solving the chicken or egg dilemma.



Our ability to compete economically in a world of relentlessly increasing productivity and global competition will be highly dependent on our ability to highly educate more of our citizens.  We need to truly professionalize teaching to do that.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


#89 The Improving Economy

Hello Everyone,

As you know from my last commentary, I attended President Obama’s speech on the economy last week at Northwestern.

He reminded us of how strongly the economy has recovered since he took office in 2008 amid the financial crisis.

However, I hasten to repeat what I said in #61 in January of 2012:

 I don’t expect a president – or anyone else – to be able to manage the economy…

 James Carville, the over-the-top Democratic strategist/entertainer, is famously credited with telling Pres. Clinton, with respect to his reelection, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

 I would submit that it is beyond the understanding, let alone the power, of any person or group of people to fix an economy. As I wrote in # 58, it appears to me that economies are prime examples of “emergent systems” – highly complex, dynamic phenomena that have no central controllers.

Nonetheless, the President aptly summarized for us the highlights of the economic recovery.  The full speech is attached; as always, I believe reading a text is a good complement to hearing a speech.  Here are some excerpts:

As Americans, we can and should be proud of the progress that our country has made over these past six years… Here are the facts:  When I took office, businesses were laying off 800,000 Americans a month.  Today, our businesses are hiring 200,000 Americans a month. The unemployment rate has come down from a high of 10 percent in 2009, to 6.1 percent today [a 5.9% rate was announced two days later, the lowest since he took office]. Over the past four and a half years… this is the longest uninterrupted stretch of private sector job creation in our history…All told, the United States has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan, and every other advanced economy combined…

And today, the number-one oil and gas producer in the world is no longer Russia or Saudi Arabia.  It’s America…

I set a goal to cut our oil imports…in half by 2020, and … we will meet that goal this year, six years ahead of schedule…

We have tripled the electricity that we harness from the wind.  We have increased tenfold what we generate from the sun…

Today, American manufacturing has added more than 700,000 new jobs…

Now, we also know that many of these manufacturing jobs have changed…And these jobs require some higher education or technical training…

We have to lead the world in education once again…

[Under the Affordable Care Act] in just the last year, we reduced the share of uninsured Americans by 26 percent [and]…health care prices have been growing at the slowest rate in nearly 50 years…

Over the past five years we’ve cut our deficits by more than half.  When I took office, the deficit was nearly 10 percent of our economy.  [Yesterday, NBC reported that “…the estimated budget deficit…in fiscal year 2014…was the smallest…recorded since 2008 [and at] an estimated 2.8 percent of gross domestic product…was slightly below the average experienced over the past 40 years…the fifth consecutive year in which the deficit declined as a percentage of GDP…”]…

So here’s the bottom line:  For all the work that remains…there are some really good things happening in America.  Unemployment down.  Jobs up.  Manufacturing growing.  Deficits cut by more than half.  High school graduation is up.  College enrollment up.  Energy production up.  Clean energy production up.  Financial system more stable.  Health care costs rising at a slower rate.  Across the board, the trend lines have moved in the right direction…

Bloomberg [News]…came out with an article today saying that corporate balance sheets are the strongest just about that they’ve ever been.  Corporate debt is down.  Profits are up.

There is a reason why I came to a business school instead of a school of government.  I actually believe that capitalism is the greatest force for prosperity and opportunity the world has ever known…

But I also believe in a higher principle, which is we’re all in this together…

So as you [Kellogg students] engage in the pursuit of profits, I challenge you to do so with a sense of purpose…

America is a story of progress — sometimes halting, sometimes incomplete, sometimes harshly challenged.  But the story of America is a story of progress…

 As the President made clear in the speech, most Americans aren’t feeling the effects of this relatively good economic environment in their paychecks.  I’ve heard him say that folks are “rightly grouchy.”

Continued productivity increases and globalization seem to be two reasons for wage stagnation.  As the President points out, he is happy that the American automobile industry survived the crisis and is doing pretty well.  But, he says when you visit a GM plant these days, you can eat off the floors and fewer people are around.

To further illustrate that point, take a quick look at this video of the Tesla plant in California (I just ordered a Tesla.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8_lfxPI5ObM  A lot of automation (i.e., high productivity), few workers.

This is yet another illustration of the urgent need for a more educated workforce, as I argued in my last piece on professionalizing teaching.

All to say, it is heartening that our economy is doing better, even though it is not broadly felt. While the President can’t claim direct credit for that, he should never have been taken blame for the weak economy that followed the financial crisis that preceded him.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


Remarks by the President on the Economy – Northwestern University – 10-2-14adobe pdf file

#90 Ebola and JFK

Hello Everyone,

It is 4:30am, and I can’t sleep. I am out of town at a meeting with a group of highly educated and ethical people, many of whom I consider friends.

Yet, I can’t sleep because of a disturbing set of interchanges I had at the bar last night. Predictably, but belatedly, the conversation turned to Ebola. Equally predictably, it quickly turned into a blame game, first targeting the CDC, but eventually turning to the President, then to me for daring to support him.

I woke up just now, evidently having spent the last four hours subconsciously processing those exchanges and feeling compelled to share with all of you the dilemma that I face.

How can I help? And, I mean “I.”

We all know President Kennedy’s famous entreaty: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Even among the most well-intentioned of us, a great many seem to have forgotten what he said in 1961. I hear nearly every day, even among the small-government types: why doesn’t the President fix this or that? And, why doesn’t he do it now?!

Therefore, I sit here and ask myself: what have I done to help stop Ebola “in its tracks?”

So far, the answer is – nothing (except writing one check.) Even though Ebola has been devastating West Africa for months already.

But, beginning now, I’m going to find out what else I can do. What organization would make the best use of another check? How can I help in West Africa, not just here? How do I ask the top-notch hospital a half-dozen blocks from our house what I can do to help them get prepared? How should my personal everyday “protocols” be changed — no physical contact with others, like they are doing in West Africa? More frequent hand-washing, and if so, with what? Is the standard Purell sufficient? How can I support my government, not criticize it? How can I help all of us stay calm?

I hope you are asking yourselves those JFK-like questions, too.

You won’t hear me lambasting anyone else until I take more personal responsibility for this enormous challenge to which I have finally fully awakened.

And, I hope the broader metaphor here is also apparent to my friends at the bar last night and to all of us.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


#91 Doing Something About Ebola

Hello Everyone,

In my last commentary, I urged all of us to heed President Kennedy’s challenge: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

At this time, that plea pertains particularly to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, but of course, it applies broadly.

My last Obamagram elicited numerous responses.  First, our son Peter, passed along a welcome satirical news report from Andy Borowitz writing in the New Yorker:

An Ohio man has become infected with misinformation about the Ebola virus through casual contact with cable news, the Centers for Disease Control has confirmed. Tracy Klugian, thirty-one, briefly came into contact with alarmist Ebola hearsay during a visit to the Akron-Canton airport, where a CNN report about Ebola was showing on one of the televisions in the airport bar. “Mr. Klugian is believed to have been exposed to cable news for no more than ten minutes, but long enough to become infected,” a spokesman for the C.D.C. said. “Within an hour, he was showing signs of believing that an Ebola outbreak in the United States was inevitable and unstoppable.”

 Once Klugian’s condition was apparent, the Ohio man was rushed to a public library and given a seventh-grade biology textbook, at which point he “started to stabilize,” the spokesman said…

After enjoying a much needed laugh, I returned to doing my small part to “stop Ebola in its tracks.”

We wrote another and much larger check, this time to Médecins Sans Frontières (or Doctors Without Borders).  The head of a leading academic medical center recommended it as well as the International Medical Corps (IMC) and Project C.U.R.E., which I consider good guidance for all of us.

Then, I tried to educate myself more deeply.  A recent article in the New York Times is extremely informative:  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/01/us/better-staffing-seen-as-crucial-to-ebola-treatment-in-africa.html?_r=0. I urge you to read it, if you haven’t already done so. While it takes some time to absorb all of this information, isn’t that an important step in doing something for our country? Here’s a snippet [emphasis added]:

The stark difference in the care available in West Africa and the United States is reflected in the outcomes… In West Africa, 70 percent of people with Ebola are dying, while seven of the first eight Ebola patients treated in the United States have walked out of the hospital in good health. Only one died: Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian, whose treatment was delayed when a Dallas hospital initially misdiagnosed his illness.

The survival gap can and should be narrowed, experts say, and they agreed that the single most important missing element is enough trained health workers to provide the kind of meticulous intensive care that saved [those] treated here. West Africa is starved of doctors, nurses, hospitals and equipment, so more outside help is urgently needed…

There is a link to an “Ebola Facts” graphic embedded after the sixteenth paragraph of the Times article. You must take a look.  It’s spectacular.

Finally, I watched for news to see where I or anyone around me should turn if help is needed.  As I wrote last time, I live half a dozen blocks from a major hospital in Evanston.  But, good as it is, it’s not the place to go.  The University of Chicago Medical Center, which has been named one of the four Chicago Ebola Resource Network hospitals, will be the place I’ll go.

In a few days, I’ll comment on last night’s mid-term elections.  Until then and beyond, we should all do something about Ebola, not just stand idly by and criticize.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com



#92 Moving From Don’t to Do?

Hello Everyone,

Now that the dust has settled a bit, I’d like to offer my two cents on the mid-term elections.

Despite what some of you may think, I am not despondent. In fact, I have always thought that it is healthy for our democracy for the pendulum to swing, as long as the arc is not too wide. Remember that I voted for President Reagan and President Bush, 41.

Here’s where I think we are now: can the Republican-controlled Congress make the critical move from “don’t to do”? I sincerely hope it can, for the sake of all of us.

If it can’t change from being “the party of no,” we should expect the pendulum to swing back again in just two years.

As far as I can tell, the Republicans have had only one major accomplishment over the last six years: making President Obama “unpopular.” (If I missed any other major Republican accomplishments, I’m sure you’ll let me know.) In my view, they were ingenious in creating gridlock and then convincing enough voters to blame it on the President. Remember what in-coming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said as I noted in #63, “Blocking Obama’s Bipartisan Promise”:

Sen…McConnell blatantly revealed his strategy a mere month after the President was inaugurated, when he famously asserted, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Sen. McConnell’s top priority wasn’t to “fix the economy” or “create jobs” – of course, he couldn’t have delivered, even if he wanted to. But, he could deliver on an intention to withhold the “bi.” Just link arms and say no to everything. Brilliant. [By definition,] Sen. McConnell did have it within his power to cause this president to fail to deliver on one of his central campaign promises [– being bipartisan].

In the mid-terms, I admired how the Republican leadership seemingly reined in the fringe elements in its party (read “Tea Party”) to avoid nominating unworthy candidates. Now, the challenge will be to rein in those same fringe elements in the new House.

Since 2010, we have essentially had minority rule in our legislature. With few exceptions, the House leadership has invoked the “Hastert Rule” – no legislation will be passed without a majority Republican vote. According to Wikipedia, the easy, but not always reliable, source:

The Hastert Rule, also known as the “majority of the majority” rule, is an informal governing principle used by Republican Speakers of the House of Representatives since the mid-1990s to maintain their speakerships…The Hastert Rule’s introduction is widely credited to former Speaker Dennis Hastert…however, Newt Gingrich [Mr. Hastert’s predecessor], followed the same rule.

Therefore, the minority fringe of the majority Republican House party has been empowered to block legislation.

Similarly in the Senate, the 60-vote filibuster rule has permitted the Republican minority to obstruct at every turn. As I’ve heard President Obama say, you can’t get anything done if the other side always takes a “maximalist” position.

Now that the Republicans are in the majority in both houses, it will be interesting to see if they can return to majority rule and actually legislate.

Following the media feeding frenzy over the elections, I finally heard one sober piece two days afterward. Here is what Ailsa Chang said on NPR:

McConnell has spent much of the past six years openly delighting in blocking key parts of President Obama’s agenda. But in his first post-election press conference in Louisville, Kentucky, it was McConnell reminding everyone the president could block him….

McConnell has a complex balancing act on his hands in the next two years. To retain control of the Senate in 2016, Republicans will have to prove they can get something done, and that means shifting their tone with the president so many of them campaigned against…

But here’s the thing, it takes 60 votes to get any legislation through the Senate. Republicans will have a smaller majority than the Democrats did, and some Republicans aren’t exactly jumping up and down to promise their loyalties to McConnell, [like] Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

A handful of [the more moderate Republicans] will be up for re-election in 2016 in states Obama either won once or twice. These Republicans could feel pressured to move to the center and compromise with Democrats. If McConnell wants to hold on to the Senate majority, he may have to let that happen…

The man who once wanted to make Obama a one-term president must now avoid becoming a one-term majority leader.

The essential question: has the pendulum swung back toward the middle? If so, the gridlock will ease and a few positive things may get done in the next few years. But if it has swung too far, and the negativity persists, or even intensifies, it will be hard to pin it on President Obama next time, and the voters will make another change. As we’ve just seen, the voters are primarily interested in “do,” not “don’t.”

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


#93 Immigration, the Tyranny of the Minority, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Hello Everyone,

It won’t come as a surprise: I am glad that President Obama has acted, at least temporarily, to address a portion of our troubled immigration system. Likewise, I am not surprised that the Republicans have strenuously objected.

Their primary objection seems to be that this action is somehow unconstitutional, violating the basic principles upon which our republic was founded.

A Tyranny of the Minority
I find this constitutional objection rather curious. I have always understood that majority rule was one of our most sacred principles. But, it seems to me that we have reached this impasse in large part because the opposition has succumbed to the will of a minority faction in its party. A tyranny of the minority, to turn a constitutional concept on its head. 

As you know, on June 20, 2013, over 500 days ago, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill by a bipartisan super-majority vote of 68 to 32, the same as on the cloture vote that preceded it. Fourteen Republicans voted yea in both cases.

The Hastert Rule
Then, the House Speaker refused for more than 1 ½ years to bring it to a vote. He was following the so-called Hastert Rule, which I have cited before. It is an informal understanding loosely attributable to former Speaker Dennis Hastert which asserts that, in a Republican-controlled House, no bill should be brought to the floor for a vote if it cannot be passed by a majority of Republicans. The need for a “majority of the majority.” 

It has been widely reported that there were enough combined Republican and Democratic votes to pass the bill. But, that would not do. The will of the majority was ignored. The tyranny of the minority continued. And, strangely, the Speaker continues to question the President’s courage and leadership.

Now the Republicans are bitterly complaining that our democratic principles are being violated by the President rather than themselves, all the while complaining that he is acting like an emperor, rather than the impotent executive they have tried to paint him to be. Confusing, no?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964
All of this caused me to wonder how our democratic processes worked during earlier times, long before the Hastert Rule. For that, I decided to look at the voting patterns on HR 7152, which became known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I think we can agree that the issues it sought to address were even more controversial and difficult than the immigration issues we face today. 

While I realize the limitations, I think it is highly instructive to see how majority rule and bipartisanship worked back then.

In 1964, both houses were controlled by Democrats, and there was a Democrat in the White House. Had a Democratic version of today’s Hastert Rule been in effect back then, the bill would never have made it to the president’s desk.

Take a look at the votes recorded in the Congressional Record. Obviously, it took 218 votes to pass the bill in the House, where it originated. Here are the actual “yea” votes on the bill in February 1964: Democrats – 152 (not enough to pass), Republicans – 138. The total of 290 permitted it to pass comfortably. Of course, the Democratic leadership favored passage, but it didn’t insist on a “majority of the majority” to make that happen.

Then, the House bill was held up by a four-month (not 1 ½ year) delay in the Senate. Ultimately, a real, not virtual, filibuster was broken. With the usual sixty votes needed for cloture, the vote was Democrats – 44, Republicans – 27. The majority Democrats couldn’t even get to cloture without the Republicans.

Again, the Democrats had to rely on Republican votes to pass the actual bill on June 19, 1964 (five days after I graduated from Amherst): Democrats – 46 (short of a 51-vote majority), Republicans – 27, for a 73% super-majority, not dissimilar to the Senate vote on the immigration bill 1 ½ years ago.

Isn’t it ironic that the Democratic Party is now viewed as the champion of African Americans and civil rights when, in fact, without the Republicans that landmark legislation wouldn’t have passed. 

This time, I wonder if the Republican Party, unwittingly, has allowed its short-sighted (dare I say selfish?) minority faction to rob it of the opportunity to be seen as a friend of immigrants for the next fifty years, thereby probably relegating it to minority party status for years to come. That use of the word “minority” is also ironic in the present context, isn’t it?

P.S. on Benghazi
Yesterday’s Chicago Tribune headline: “House Probe: No Benghazi Cover-Up.” 

“A two-year investigation by the Republican and Democratic leaders of the [Republican-controlled] House intelligence panel rejects allegations that the Obama administration intentionally misled the public about the deadly attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. Repudiating what it called ‘the swirl of rumors and unsupported allegations’ over the Benghazi assault, lawmakers on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said in a report released Friday that there was never a ‘stand-down’ order blocking rescue efforts and that White House officials weren’t to blame for an inaccurate initial account of the events on Sept. 11, 2012.”

Enough said.

Returning to the current immigration battle, I wonder when majority rule will return to the Congress so a long-term solution can be found.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


#94 Thank You, Speaker Boehner

Hello Everyone,

Thank you, Speaker Boehner, for your early holiday present to our country.

Yesterday, you allowed the majority to rule.  The House passed the $1.1 trillion spending bill on a bi-partisan vote and avoided another government shutdown.

It passed by a mere 13 votes – 219 to 206, with 10 not voting.  To reach a majority of those voting, 213 votes were needed.  But, only 162 Republicans voted yes, or 38% of the total, far short of a majority.  So, the Speaker needed 51 Democrats to vote for the bill for it to pass, and 57 did.

For the first time in a very long time (I haven’t yet researched how long), Speaker Boehner ignored the so-called “Hastert Rule” (which requires laws be passed with a Republican-only majority), and allowed the majority of the entire House to actually rule.

I sincerely hope that this is the first step toward restoring majority rule and bi-partisanship to the House.

If a similar vote had been permitted on the immigration bill a year and a half-ago, there would have been no need for the President’s recent executive action. (See #93: Immigration, the Tyranny of the Minority, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964: http://www.obamagrams.com/group-1/93-immigration-the-tyranny-of-the-minority-and-the-civil-rights-act-of-1964/

Happy Holidays, everyone.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


#95 The New Bi-partisanship Continues and Two Corrections

Hello Everyone, 

The Senate Vote
As everyone knows by now, in yet another show of bi-partisanship, the Senate passed the spending bill on Saturday. It was truly a compromise (we haven’t heard that word much in the last few years): the 56 votes for passage were split 31 Democratic, 24 Republican, 1 Independent. So the majority needed substantial participation by the minority. That’s a good thing, even though no one was entirely satisfied. I think that is what compromise (that once dirty word) produces. Interestingly, the cloture vote was 77 to 19.  

These two corrections are technical, so, hopefully, few of you will care to read about my miscues.

# 93: Immigration, the Tyranny of the Minority, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964
An Amherst classmate was actually present for some of the Senate debate on the 1964 Civil Rights Act that was eventually passed just five days after we graduated.  So, he remembers the cloture rule in effect at the time. 

In my commentary, I wrote “…Then, the House bill was held up by a four-month…delay in the Senate. Ultimately, a real, not virtual, filibuster was broken. With the usual sixty votes needed for cloture, the vote was Democrats – 44, Republicans – 27. The majority Democrats couldn’t even get to cloture without the Republicans.”

While my facts on that particular vote were correct, the words “usual sixty votes” were not. The cloture rule in 1964 required a vote of “two-thirds of all senators present and voting.”  In 1975, the Senate reduced the requirement to three-fifths of those senators “duly chosen and sworn,” or effectively sixty votes. I stand corrected. Thank you, George.

#94: Thank you, Speaker Boehner
Another Amherst classmate (hmmm…) was the first to point out that “…the ‘Hastert rule’ is not to bring a bill to the floor unless a majority of the majority party (i.e., the Republicans) is for it. In this case [the recent House vote on the spending bill], a majority of the Republicans supported it, albeit not enough to pass it on their own.” I misinterpreted the “Rule,” and I stand corrected. Thank you, Scott.

However, I think my larger point about the “tyranny of the minority” still holds. The notion of the “tyranny” is this: there are 234 Republicans in the current House. A majority of them, if they are all voting, is 118. Therefore, under the Hastert Rule, 118 of the 435 members, or 27%, can prevent a vote on a bill even when there are enough combined Republican and Democratic votes to pass it.

Per The New Yorker last year: “Today, Boehner’s violations of the Hastert rule [that answers one of my questions in #94] have angered conservatives who see themselves as the ones marginalized by his ability to get around their demands. Under pressure, Boehner has repeatedly reassured them that he won’t break the rule again when it comes to immigration reform. Something resembling the bill that has passed the Senate would likely pass the House if it came to a floor vote, with a majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans in support. But Boehner has made clear he won’t allow that to happen.”

That article went on to argue that the Rule is really what could be called a “speaker preservation rule” – satisfying the majority of his members, but a minority of the entire House, to keep his grip on the speaker’s office.  Hardly a democratic concept.

I would go on to point out that for a party that often pulls out the “constitutionality” card, as has been the case with the recent executive order on immigration, it blithely seems to ignore the most bedrock of all constitutional principles, majority rule, when the Hastert Rule is invoked.

All in all, I guess I will have to eat crow for Christmas dinner this year, rather than turkey.

Happy Holidays everyone.

Please, as always, pass it on. And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


#96 Breaking the Hastert Rule

Hello Everyone,

Today, the House of Representatives passed a so-called “clean” bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security through the end of the fiscal year, eliminating provisions to overturn the President’s executive order stopping deportations.

In so doing, Speaker John Boehner broke the “Hastert Rule” – which states that a bill should only be passed if a majority of Republicans vote for it.  It has led to a “tyranny of the minority” in many cases.

In this case, only 75 out of the 245 (or 31%) sitting Republicans voted for the bill.  Of the 188 Democrats, 182 voted yes, producing a solid 257 to 167 (61%) majority.

Thank you, Mr. Boehner.  Well done.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


#97 The Selma Speech and the Complexity of American Exceptionalism

Hello Everyone,

On a few occasions in this space, I have suggested that it is good to read the text of a speech even if you’ve heard it delivered.  Such is the case with the one President Obama gave last Saturday in Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday (see attachment A).

I have also attached a piece written that day by James Fallows in The Atlantic entitled,

“Finally I Hear a Politician Explain My Country Just the Way I Understand It” (see attachment B).

In it, he praises the President for “stating with concise complexity what is indeed exceptional about this American experiment…how exceptional the American ambition is.”

The President said:

As we commemorate [the marchers’] achievement, we are well-served to remember that at the time of the marches, many in power condemned rather than praised them…Their faith was questioned.  Their lives were threatened.  Their patriotism challenged.

And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place?…

What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished…that it is in our power to remake this nation…

It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths…  

That’s what it means to love America.  That’s what it means to believe in America.  That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.

Fallows singles out “the riff near the end, with its artful repeated emphasis on we”:

We were born of change.  We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights….

Look at our history.  We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters.  That’s our spirit.  That’s who we are.

We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some.  And we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth.  That is our character.

We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free –- Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan.  We’re the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because we want our kids to know a better life.  That’s how we came to be.

We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South.   We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened up the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.

We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent.  And we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, and the Navajo code-talkers, and the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied.

We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.  We’re the gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.

We are storytellers, writers, poets, artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.

The President continued:

That’s what America is.  Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others.

And, my favorite paragraph:

…Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person.  Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.”  “We The People.”  “We Shall Overcome.”  “Yes We Can.”

Then, the President concluded, his idealism and optimism on full display:

Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer.  Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding our union is not yet perfect, but we are getting closer.

Thus, the complexity of America’s exceptional ambition.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com



adobe pdf file

Attachment A – Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma Marches


adobe pdf file

Attachment B – Fallow – Finally I hear a Politician…The Atlantic


#98 Same-Sex Marriage – Changing Times, Small Increments, and Thunderbolts

Hello Everyone,

Last week, when news reached me about the Supreme Court’s decision that same-sex marriage is a civil right, I had the surreal sense that I was experiencing a truly historical moment.  It immediately caused me to imagine what it must have been like in 1954 at a similarly historic moment — when the Brown v. Board decision was handed down (I was a few months shy of my twelfth birthday and wasn’t paying attention – although I recall that my elementary school outside of Trenton, NY, had been de-segregated about five years earlier — small increments.)

As usual, President Obama’s remarks that morning eloquently placed the most recent decision in a larger, historical context.  He pointed to “the realities of changing times” and that “progress…often comes in small increments…and then sometimes…justice arrives like a thunderbolt.”  Changing times, small increments, and thunderbolts apply to both the 2015 and 1954 decisions. Here are some excerpts and, as usual, I commend their reading to you (see Attachment):

Our nation was founded on a bedrock principle that we are all created equal.  The project of each generation is to bridge the meaning of those founding words with the realities of changing times…

Progress on this journey often comes in small increments…propelled by the persistent effort of dedicated citizens.  And then sometimes…justice …arrives like a thunderbolt.

This ruling [is] a victory for gay and lesbian couples who have fought so long for their basic civil rights…It’s a victory for the allies and friends and supporters who spent years, even decades, working and praying for change to come. [Remember that the Stonewall Inn riots, which have come to be seen as the launching pad for the gay rights movement, took place in 1969, almost exactly forty-six years ago.]

And this ruling is a victory for America…When all Americans are treated as equal we are all more free.

…today, we can say in no uncertain terms that we’ve made our union a little more perfect.

That’s the consequence of a decision from the Supreme Court, but, more importantly, it is a consequence of the countless small acts of courage of millions of people across decades who stood up, who came out, who talked to parents — parents who loved their children no matter what.

…a reminder of what Bobby Kennedy once said about how small actions can be like pebbles being thrown into a still lake, and ripples of hope cascade outwards and change the world.

Likewise it is also worth reading the majority opinion written by Justice Kennedy, which contains similar themes (http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/14-556_3204.pdf ).  Here are some excerpts:

From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage…

The ancient origins of marriage confirm its centrality, but it has not stood in isolation from developments in law and society. The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. That institution—even as confined to opposite-sex relations—has evolved over time.

For example, marriage was once viewed as an arrangement by the couple’s parents based on political, religious, and financial concerns…As the role and status of women changed, the institution further evolved. Under the centuries-old doctrine of coverture, a married man and woman were treated by the State as a single, male-dominated legal entity…As women gained legal, political, and property rights, and as society began to understand that women have their own equal dignity, the law of coverture was abandoned.

In Loving v. Virginia, [the Court] invalidated bans on interracial unions [years after President Obama’s parents were married in Hawaii where there was no such a ban]…

It cannot be denied that the Court’s [previously-decided] cases describing the right to marry presumed a relationship involving opposite-sex partners.  The Court, like many institutions, has made assumptions defined by the world and time of which it is a part…

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

Lastly, the 1954 decision to end school segregation also embraced the notion that our society’s conditions and norms change over time and our laws and the interpretation of our Constitution must change with them.

Reading Chief Justice Warren’s opinion for the majority is instructive in more deeply understanding the decision on same-sex marriage (http://www.nationalcenter.org/brown.html).  In many ways, the recent opinion could have used the earlier one, substituting “same-sex marriage” and “LGBT” for “de-segregation” and “Negroes.”  Changes in the conditions of society are also a central argument in the Brown decision.  Here are some excerpts:

[Arguments in this case were] largely devoted to the circumstances surrounding the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.

… [the silence of] the Amendment’s history with respect to segregated schools is [due to] the status of public education at that time. In the South, the movement toward free common schools, supported by general taxation, had not yet taken hold…any education of Negroes was forbidden by law in some states.

Even in the North, the conditions of public education did not approximate those existing today. The curriculum was usually rudimentary; ungraded schools were common in rural areas; the school term was but three months a year in many states, and compulsory school attendance was virtually unknown. As a consequence, it is not surprising that there should be so little in the history of the Fourteenth Amendment relating to its intended effect on public education.

In the first cases in this Court construing the Fourteenth Amendment, decided shortly after its adoption, the Court interpreted it as proscribing all state-imposed discriminations against the Negro race. The doctrine of “separate but equal” did not make its appearance in this Court until 1896 in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson…involving not education but transportation.

In approaching this problem, we cannot turn the clock back to 1868, when the Amendment was adopted, or even to 1896, when Plessy v. Ferguson was written. We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the Nation.

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society.

We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.

In returning to the marriage decision, I was surprised to learn how late legalization came to this country.  Starting in 2001, twenty-one countries made that decision before we did, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom and, most recently as we all know, Ireland.  Note that many of these are considered “Catholic” countries.

Across well more than a half century, our Supreme Court has shown the capacity to adapt to changing times and issue an occasional thunderbolt.  Makes me proud to be an American.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


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Attachment – Remarks by the President on the Supreme Court Decision on Marriage Equality 6-26-15

#99 Two Union-Perfecting Weeks

Hello Everyone,

The Confederate battle flag was removed from the grounds of the South Carolina State House this morning in a dignified ceremony.  So ends an extraordinary two week period in U.S. history when we’ve actually witnessed the arc of the moral universe bending towards justice, to adapt the now-famous words of a 19th-century abolitionist, and as has been pointed out by others.   The Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, followed by the Charleston tragedy and the church’s astoundingly gracious response to it, and now the battle flag is down.

Last time, I wrote about how the same-sex marriage decision caused me to think about a similarly momentous decision sixty-one years earlier which ended legalized segregation in public schools.

Likewise, President Obama’s exceptional eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, delivered the same day as the recent Court decision, caused me to immediately think of his March 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia.  In the latter, then-candidate Obama sought to quell the firestorm emanating from incendiary remarks made by another black pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who led Obama’s church.  The differences between the two occasions are stark, but the messages are of a piece.

Two friends of mine called my attention to a Pulitzer-prize-winning literary critic’s review of the President’s eulogy in the Arts section of the New York Times.  Michiko Kakutani called it “remarkable” in part because it:

 …drew on all of Mr. Obama’s gifts of language and empathy and searching intellect — first glimpsed in “Dreams From My Father,” his…1995 memoir [published when he was 34 years old]. And because it used those gifts to talk about the complexities of race and justice, situating them within an echoing continuum in time that reflected both Mr. Obama’s own long view of history, and the panoramic vision of America, shared by Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as a country in the process of perfecting itself.


The Times piece is well worth reading (see Attachment A) as is the eulogy itself (see Attachment B).

I did not write about Obama’s Philadelphia speech, although I listened to it and then read it at the time, as is my custom.  (It is almost twice as long as the eulogy and equally worth reading; see Attachment C.)  Here are some excerpts:

[In 1787, the Constitution] was eventually signed, but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery…Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution — a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law…

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part…to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time…

Now throughout the first year of this campaign…we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity…In South Carolina, where the Confederate flag still flies [emphasis added], we built a powerful coalition of African Americans and white Americans…

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America: to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality. The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through, a part of our union that we have not yet made perfect…

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static, as if no progress had been made, as if this country…is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. What we know, what we have seen, is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope — the audacity to hope — for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more and nothing less than what all the world’s great religions demand: that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.

None other than Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal praised the Philadelphia address as “a thinking man’s speech.”

Rev. Wright’s comments that prompted the speech surfaced in the heart of the heated Democratic primary, threatening to derail Obama’s bid for the nomination.  Ten days after the Philadelphia speech, I wrote Obamagram #23.  In it, I noted that, with 45 states and territories having already been decided, Mr. Obama’s lead in the primary was virtually insurmountable.  However, due to that threat, I spent considerable time learning about Rev. Wright.  I talked to his professors at the University of Chicago Divinity School, to friends who were members of his congregation, and to the Amherst chaplain who had hosted him a year earlier when he spoke at the College’s MLK Day celebration.  I even attended a service at his church on Chicago’s South Side to see for myself.  I concluded that it was a tempest in a teapot and never wrote about it in this space.

As Ms. Kakutani wrote following the recent eulogy:  For Mr. Obama, America is a “constant work in progress,” a nation founded upon the idea of new beginnings…[and] that “we can constantly remake ourselves to fit our larger dreams…”

These are themes that have animated Mr. Obama’s writings and oratory for [more than twenty] years.

As he’s done in his most powerful earlier work, Mr. Obama drew upon his own knowledge of Scripture and literature and history — much the way Lincoln and Dr. King did in their writings — to create a musical narrative that uses biblical and historical allusions to widen the dimensions of his storytelling, while moving between the vernacular and the metaphorical, between particular issues…([such as] the hurt and hate represented by the Confederate battle flag) [emphasis added] and larger moral and spiritual imperatives…

In addition to their consistent themes, the other links between these two talks, given seven years apart, are their high-mindedness, intelligence, temperance, sense of history, and hopefulness.  It is also worth noting that Mr. Obama wrote the 2008 Philadelphia speech virtually in its entirety and reportedly spent five scarce presidential hours shaping the 2015 Charleston eulogy.  These are his thoughts and words.

It is extraordinary to see tangible progress toward a more perfect union literally unfolding before our eyes.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


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Attachment A – Obama’s Eulogy…History by M. Kakutani 7-3-15


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Attachment B – Remarks by the President in Eulogy…Pinckney 6-26-15


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Attachment C – Barack Obama – More Perfect Union 3-18-08


#100 Will the Narcissist Help to Restore Sanity?

Hello Everyone,

After a long hiatus in writing these commentaries, I can no longer resist writing about the run up to the primaries.  After all, I began these in the run up to the 2008 primaries.

On this single occasion, I feel the imperative to write about the Republican contest.  I do not intend to return to that subject, nor do I expect to write about the Democratic race.

As someone who grew up outside Albany, NY, as a Rockefeller Republican, witnessed the Goldwater debacle, and voted for Reagan twice before settling in as a low-partisan Democrat, I now fear for the health of the Republican Party.  We need two vibrant, well-functioning, centrist parties to make our form of government work.

My go-to conservative columnist, David Brooks, puts it better than I can (see Attachment):

The Republican Party’s capacity for effective self-governance degraded slowly, over the course of a long chain of rhetorical excesses, mental corruptions and philosophical betrayals. Basically, the party abandoned traditional conservatism for right-wing radicalism…

By traditional definitions, conservatism stands for intellectual humility, a belief in steady, incremental change, a preference for reform rather than revolution, a respect for hierarchy, precedence, balance and order, and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible…

All of this has been overturned in dangerous parts of the Republican Party. Over the past 30 years, or at least since Rush Limbaugh came on the scene, the Republican rhetorical tone has grown ever more bombastic, hyperbolic and imbalanced…

Politics is the process of making decisions amid diverse opinions. It involves conversation, calm deliberation, self-discipline, the capacity to listen to other points of view and balance valid but competing ideas and interests…

A weird contradictory mentality replaced traditional conservatism. Republican radicals have contempt for politics, but they still believe that transformational political change can rescue the nation…

In his masterwork, “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber argues that the pre-eminent qualities for a politician are passion, a feeling of responsibility and a sense of proportion…

If a politician lacks the quality of detachment — the ability to let the difficult facts of reality work their way into the mind — then, Weber argues, the politician ends up striving for the “boastful but entirely empty gesture.” His work “leads nowhere and is senseless.”

In my many decades, I have known only two or three people I consider to have a “narcissistic personality disorder,” a mental illness.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, and as summarized by the Mayo Clinic, the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder include these features. You can decide for yourself if Mr. Trump suffers from this disorder.

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner

Although some features of narcissistic personality disorder may seem like having confidence, it’s not the same. Narcissistic personality disorder crosses the border of healthy confidence into thinking so highly of yourself that you put yourself on a pedestal and value yourself more than you value others.

Max Weber’s assertion in his 1919 essay – “the boastful but entirely empty gesture…leads nowhere” — causes me to conclude that Donald Trump’s candidacy “leads nowhere.” I expect that he will not long persevere in the nomination process.  In his own off-repeated claim, voters “love” him as evidenced by the polls.  But, since polls can be as ephemeral as ratings for reality TV shows, I anticipate that Mr. Trump will fade into an historical footnote as soon as his poll numbers begin to recede.

Hopefully, Mr. Trump’s withdrawal will be the first step in breaking the revolutionary fever that unfortunately grips the Republican Party.  And, our democracy will be the better for it.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


adobe pdf fileAttachment – Brooks — The Republicans’ Incompetence Caucus – NYT – 10-13-15


#101 A Monster of Their Own Making

Hello Everyone,

In February 2007, I started writing these commentaries in order to introduce a little-known state senator who had announced his presidential candidacy.  That led me to make occasional observations about the person and then the primary process using this format.

Except for one piece on Donald Trump’s “narcissistic personality disorder,” I have refrained from commenting on this year’s primaries.  Generally speaking, I will continue to do so except for a couple of follow-ups to this one.

But, since we are going to our second State Dinner at the White House tonight, I am reminded of why I have long admired President Obama and why I will miss him. In turn, I feel compelled to offer a few observations about the current Republican primary, which I’m beginning to understand and which I will not miss when it ends.

Many of you will recall that as early as May 2007 (Obamagram #6), I was writing about being drawn to Mr. Obama in part for his “temperament”.  Later, I expanded that to “intellect, temperament, and world view.”

The contrasts with Donald Trump could not be more striking.

I also think of the stark contrast between Mr. Trump and President Reagan.  Although a genuine conservative, Mr. Reagan was first and foremost a pragmatist and an optimist.  The country needed him in 1980, after the doldrums of the 1970’s.  That’s why I voted for him (#84).

It seems to me that the Republicans are in the process of being hoisted on twin petards of their own making: conditions and process.  And, sadly, their party will probably pay a dear price.

I will focus here on the conditions of unrelenting negativity and obstructionism that have given rise to the Trump phenomenon.

These notions were convincingly captured by Robert Kagan in a Washington Post column entitled “Trump is the GOP’s Frankenstein monster.  Now he’s strong enough to destroy the party.”  (See Attachment.)  In part, it says:

Let’s be clear: Trump is no fluke.  Nor is he hijacking the Republican Party or the conservative movement, if there is such a thing.  He is, rather, the party’s creation, its Frankenstein’s monster, brought to life by the party, fed by the party and now made strong enough to destroy its maker.  Was it not the party’s wild obstructionism – the repeated threats to shut down the government over policy and legislative disagreements, the persistent calls for nullification of Supreme Court decisions, the insistence that compromise was betrayal, the internal coups against party leaders who refused to join the general demolition – that taught Republican voters that government, institutions, political traditions, party leadership and even parties themselves were things to be overthrown, evaded, ignored, insulted, laughed at?  Was it not Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), among others, who set this tone and thereby cleared the way for someone even more irreverent, so that now, in a most unenjoyable irony, Cruz, along with the rest of the party, must fall to the purer version of himself, a less ideologically encumbered anarcho-revolutionary?  This would not be the first revolution that devoured itself.

Think of the other Republicans who helped to create the conditions which produced this Frankenstein. Sarah Palin was one of the first.  All the efforts to delegitimize the President.  Sen. Mitch McConnell’s declaration “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president” soon after Mr. Obama was inaugurated.  In early 2008, the so-called Tea Party movement began becoming the self-appointed enforcer of ideological purity.  Cong. Joe Wilson’s, “You lie!’ outburst during the State of the Union address in 2009.  The list is endless.

Mr. Trump’s clinical narcissism blinds him to his role in the destruction of the party he is using to feed his disorder.

The only thing surprising about all of this is that it took me so long to realize what was happening – that a monster has been created – he can’t be stopped – and he will do irreparable damage to the party that unwittingly created him.

In my next commentary, I will write about process – how Republicans’ revised primary process will also come back to destroy the party.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


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Kagan – Washington Post – Trump is the GOP 2-25-16

#102 Looking at Trump through the prism of Ali

Hello Everyone,

Over the past several days, I have been working on a comprehensive commentary which attempts to explain, first to myself, how someone with Donald Trump’s deeply-flawed character could be the presumptive Republican nominee.  That will come your way soon.

Then, Muhammad Ali died.

In the global outpouring of respect accorded him, I have been struck by the contrasts between these two men — with seemingly similar personalities, but vastly different characters.

Both Ali and Trump first garnered attention for their bombastic, over-the-top styles.  “I am the greatest.”  “You’re fired!”  But, the comparison stops there.

Mohammad Ali’s life is a perfect and timely prism through which to examine Donald Trump’s life.  Trump seems to be all bombast absent any apparent sacrifice or evidence of having led a principled life.  He is only four years younger than Ali, but what has he done over his nearly 70 years except call attention to himself and amass a fortune?

I am about nine months younger than Ali and have followed him since 1960, when he won gold at the Olympics, and I went off to college.  We both lived, albeit with drastically different experiences, through the tumultuous cultural changes of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

I well remember being put off at first by his unbridled braggadocio.  However, I (much more discretely) adopted an anti-Vietnam War posture while I was an active duty Army officer about the time that Ali resisted the draft.  He was banned from boxing and sentenced for it, interrupting his career much as I had interrupted mine (although, in his case, at an infinitely greater sacrifice).

Ali’s death reminds us of his highly textured, multi-layered life.  He is remembered not only for his boxing and bombast, but for his principles.  Ali courted controversy and sacrificed a great deal in converting to Islam, becoming a conscientious objector and draft resister, and fighting racism.  How will we remember Trump when he dies?

Ali’s conversion to Islam and its profound effect on his life is instructive in today’s highly-charged atmosphere.  Observers have emphasized that Islam’s message of peace was the principal reason that Ali refused to submit to the draft.  Think of the stark contrasts between that and ISIL’s ruthlessness, on the one hand, and Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering this country, on the other.

Among the many tributes, Sunday’s lead segment on “Meet the Press” most resonated with me.

Football legend and civil rights activist Jim Brown and long-time sportscaster and Today show host Bryant Gumbel, who will talk at Ali’s service, contributed along with sportscaster Bob Costas, while Chuck Todd moderated.  I commend it to you, if you missed it:  http://www.nbc.com/meet-the-press/video/meet-the-press-june-5-2016/3045540  It’s at the start of the program and lasts about ten minutes.

Appropriately, Chuck Todd’s interview with Sen. Mitch McConnell immediately followed.  During it, the Senator wouldn’t agree that Trump’s attacks on the judge hearing the Trump University case were racist.  And, he said that he is now supporting Trump because winning the White House is the only thing that matters.  Another startling contrast with the character displayed by Muhammad Ali.

[Corrections:  It has been pointed out to me that in #101, I made a few errors.  Undoubtedly, there have been many others over the years. Here are my corrections.  Obviously, in 2007 Barrack Obama was a U.S. senator, no longer a state senator.  We made a typo indicating that the so-called Tea Party movement started in 2008, not 2009.  And, the infamous Cong. Joe Wilson incident happened during President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress in September 2009, not a State of the Union address.  My apologies.]

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com



#103 A Dangerous Mix: Fear, Authoritarianism, and Narcissism

Hello Everyone,

These commentaries were dubbed “Obamagrams” in 2007 because they were intended to be about the candidate and then his presidency.

I have only written three times about the current presidential selection process, once last October, then again in March of this year, and on Tuesday.

The first of these (#100) identified Donald Trump as someone who clearly suffers from “narcissistic personality disorder” and predicted that he would fade when his poll numbers did.  I was obviously way off the mark in that prediction as so many more knowledgeable observers have been. But, I am now more convinced that the diagnosis fits even though that prognosis didn’t.

I have continued to struggle to understand how such an unappealing figure has the backing of a not inconsiderable portion of the electorate.  In many ways, his candidacy is not susceptible to political analysis – it requires psychoanalysis.  It also doesn’t fit into our traditional “left” and “right” construct for understanding politics.

Some of my readers have asked when I would offer an opinion about this bewildering and bizarre situation.  I have hesitated because I couldn’t find anything useful to say.

My Thesis
The picture is now becoming clearer to me.  At the risk of being wrong again, I am ready to share it:

Fear has caused some voters this cycle to seek an authoritarian figure.  Donald Trump’s style meets this need, even though he may be nothing more than a narcissist seeking the ultimate form of attention.  Nonetheless, fear, authoritarianism, and narcissism are a dangerous mix.

I have come to agree with other analysts that Trump is merely an opportunist, a symptom or beneficiary of underlying societal concerns.  He is not a credible presidential candidate with an underlying philosophy or realistic proposals for addressing those concerns.  Nor does he have a biography, 70 years in the making, that offers any evidence that he actually cares about his newly-found followers. There is absolutely nothing on his resume that indicates any interest in governing or even service of any kind.

Trump is little more than a narcissist in authoritarian clothing.

At the same time, we should all be concerned about the latent demand for an authoritarian leader which his candidacy has revealed.  Trump needs to be resoundingly defeated by Secretary Clinton, not just to avoid the calamity of a Trump presidency, but to discourage any future copy-cat authoritarians emerging from either the right or the left.  They could destroy our democracy.

Authoritarianism Activated by Fear
A friend of mine alerted me to a piece which sparked my thinking.  It was published on the website Vox – a purportedly liberal outlet of which I was not previously aware and for whose credibility I cannot vouch.  The lengthy piece, entitled “The Rise of American Authoritarianism,” is worth a read.  (You can Google it if you wish.  If I supply a link, some of your email systems may reject it.) 

While I have no opinion about the validity of the academic research it cites, its basic argument makes sense to me:  There are voters with inherent authoritarian proclivities and others to whom authoritarian solutions appeal when conditions cause fear which, in turn, “activates” or triggers those tendencies.

The argument in Vox holds that:

Authoritarians are a real constituency that exists independently of Trump – and will persist as a force in American politics…Authoritarians prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control to a chaotic world.  Challenges to that order – diversity, influx of outsiders, breakdown of the old order – are experienced as personally threatening because they risk upending the status quo order…

Fear of change is one of the emotions that drives authoritarians.  In my view, fear is a better explanation than anger –the now conventional explanation — although they are closely related.  And, the major changes our society is currently undergoing engenders fear in some people. Here’s Vox again:

This is, after all, a time of social change in America.  The country is becoming more diverse, which means that many white Americans are confronting race in a way they have never had to before.  Those changes have been happening for a long time, but in recent years they have become more visible and harder to ignore.  And they are coinciding with economic trends that have squeezed working-class white people.

When they face physical threats or threats to the status quo, authoritarians support policies that seem to offer protection against those fears.  They favor forceful, decisive action against things they perceive as threats.  And they flock to political leaders who they believe will bring this action.

In #83, I wrote about Niccolò Machiavelli’s explanation about why change is difficult and scary (The Prince, 1513):

…one should bear in mind that there is nothing more difficult to execute, nor more dubious of success, nor more dangerous to administer than to introduce a new order of things; for he who introduces it has all those who profit from the old order as his enemies, and he has only lukewarm allies in all those who might profit from the new. This lukewarmness partly stems from fear…and partly from the skepticism of men, who do not truly believe in new things unless they have actually had personal experience of them. Therefore, it happens that whenever those who are enemies [of the change] have the chance to attack, they do so enthusiastically, whereas those others defend [the change] hesitantly…

In other words, human beings have long feared the unknowns inherent in change.

There seem to be threats everywhere: physical threats, including terrorism since 9/11 and ISIL more recently; economic threats, greatly exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis, accelerating already disruptive changes in the structure of our economy and the types of jobs it produces; and social threats, with the nation becoming majority minority and changing marriage and gender identity norms.  And, there is a growing perception that a “dysfunctional” federal government is incapable of providing adequate protection from these threats.

The accumulation of these real and perceived threats – stoked by the unrelenting fear tactics and negativity of some politicians, commentators, and media over many years – seems to have activated authoritarian responses among some voters.

When fears are sufficiently aroused, some people look for “short, simple, and certain” solutions.  They reject “long, complex, and nuanced” ones.  Authoritarianism vs. democracy.

Punitive approaches, accompanied by the threat of force, also appeal to those looking for authoritarian answers.

Trump’s natural style and rhetoric perfectly fit the bill.  Build a wall. Throw the Mexicans out.  No Muslims welcome here. Punch him in the face.

However, while it may seem that he is attempting to seize dictatorial power, there is no evidence that he is running in pursuit of any philosophical objective.  Rather, I suspect that his shallow pursuit of self-aggrandisement is a goal in and of itself – to feed his narcissistic addiction – and his bombastic, no-holds-barred personality neatly conforms to the needs of voters looking for what appears to be an authoritarian.  He may just be an accidental candidate, strange as that may seem.

I am also convinced that he only wants the title, not the job.  But, as he continues his racist assault on the judge on his Trump University case, I’m not even sure that he actually wants the title.  He may just want the notoriety that accrues simply from seeking the title. Again, all of this requires psychoanalysis, not political analysis.

There is also nothing that would lead us to believe that Trump is pursuing totalitarian power in the name of some great ideological goal like Stalin, Hitler, or Mao did.  His philosophy may be no more profound than a slogan that fits on a baseball cap.  And, as someone recently quipped, even that could be interpreted as no more than a plea to “Make America White Again.” It could also just as easily read “Leave it to Beaver.”

I might add that Bernie Sanders’ message seems to have some elements of authoritarianism, too, odd as that may sound.  His message is also “short, simple, and certain,” although it is much gentler, with no punitive elements, and it has noble intent and philosophical underpinnings. Nonetheless, it is somewhat concerning, too.

As we know, in stark contrast to Trump and Sanders, President Obama’s answers to all big problems are “long, complex, and nuanced.”  That is, learned, realistic, and even sober. For instance, here’s what he said in a PBS NewsHour forum recently, regarding the dilemma about jobs [greatly truncated]:

Q: What can we look forward to in the future as far as jobs, employment, whatever?  Because all of our jobs have left or in the process of leaving, sir.

A: … part of the problems have to do with jobs going overseas…

…frankly, part of it has had to do with automation…And so what that means is, even though we’re making the same amount of stuff in our manufacturing sector, we’re employing fewer people.

Now, the good news is that there are entire new industries that are starting to pop up, and you’re actually seeing some manufacturers coming back to the United States…

But for those folks who’ve lost their job right now because a plant went down to Mexico [or was automated], that isn’t going to make you feel better…some of those jobs of the past are just not going to come back…

But I got to tell you that the days when you just being willing [sic] to work hard and you can…walk into a plant and suddenly there’s going to be a job for you, that’s just not going to be there for our kids, [they are] going to need to know computers…need to know some science and some math…

But you cannot look backwards.  And that doesn’t make folks feel good sometimes…But they’re going to have to retrain for the jobs of the future, not the jobs of the past.

The “Big Me”
David Brooks provided the final piece of the social change puzzle – the concept of the “Big Me.” It explains why Trump’s clinical narcissism is more acceptable today in some circles.

In his current book, ironically entitled The Road to Character, David writes that in recent years:

…we have seen a broad shift from a culture of humility to the culture of what you might call the Big Me, from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe.

Think Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.  Think Donald Trump.

Trump’s insatiable need to be “the center of the universe” comes at a time when the electronic media has an even more insatiable appetite for “content” (the more outrageous the better) intersects with some voters’ desire for a simple-minded, authoritarian-style candidate.  Trump cannot be understood by looking through conservative or liberal lenses.  All you need is a selfie stick.

Authoritarians as a Persistent Force
Regardless of Trump, we should all be concerned that he may have unleashed the dark forces of authoritarianism (like racism) that could be a threat to our democracy for some time to come.

More from Vox:

…political scientists say the theory [of authoritarianism] explains much more than just Donald Trump, placing him within larger trends in American politics: polarization, the rightward shift of the Republican Party… [beginning] in the 1960s [the last era of great social change when] the Republican Party…reinvented itself as the party of law, order, and traditional values…and the [more recent] rise within that party of a dissident faction [the Tea Party] challenging GOP orthodoxies and upending American politics.

More than that, authoritarianism reveals the connections between several seemingly disparate stories about American politics. And it suggests that a combination of demographic, economic, and political forces, by awakening this authoritarian class of voters that has coalesced around Trump, may now have [created] a de facto three-party system: The Democrats, the GOP establishment, and the GOP authoritarians… [This] phenomenon that broke into public view with the 2016 election…will persist long after it has ended…

American Exceptionalism
Our family doctor framed the challenge we are now all facing most incisively last week.  Our country’s willingness to reject an anti-democratic candidate will confirm its claim of “exceptionalism.”  Alternatively, a further turn toward authoritarianism, whether philosophical or accidental, could prove to be the threat we should most fear.

I am confident that we will be up to the challenge in November by electing Hillary Clinton by an overwhelming margin, thus tamping down the authoritarian impulses always latent in our electorate.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


#104 The DSM Has the Answers

Hello Everyone,

In October of last year, long before the first primary votes were cast, I wrote a commentary (#100) suggesting that readers could decide for themselves if Donald Trump’s personality traits fit those of someone with “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” according to the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Then, in response to my commentary two weeks ago (#103), one of my readers went further, suggesting that I also consider the criteria for “Antisocial Personality Disorder.”

As I wrote last time, I think that understanding Trump’s candidacy requires psychoanalysis rather than political analysis.

Here are the DSM criteria for both disorders [underlines added]. (For a quick read, I suggest you just look at the under-lined passages).

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

DSM-5 Criteria – Revised June 2011

The essential features of a personality disorder are impairments in personality (self and interpersonal) functioning and the presence of pathological personality traits. To diagnose narcissistic personality disorder, the following criteria must be met:A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:1. Impairments in self functioning (a or b):a. Identity: Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation; exaggerated self-appraisal may be inflated or deflated, or vacillate between extremes; emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem.

b. Self-direction: Goal-setting is based on gaining approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high in order to see oneself as exceptional, or too low based on a sense of entitlement; often unaware of own motivations.


2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):

a. Empathy: Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others; excessively attuned to reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self; over- or underestimate of own effect on others.

b. Intimacy: Relationships largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation; mutuality constrained by little genuine interest in others’ experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain.

B. Pathological personality traits in the following domain:

1. Antagonism, characterized by:

a. Grandiosity: Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert; self-centeredness; firmly holding to the belief that one is better than others; condescending toward others.

b. Attention seeking: Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking.

C. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.
D. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual’s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.
E. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).

Antisocial Personality Disorder

DSM-5 Criteria – Revised April 2012 

The essential features of a personality disorder are impairments in personality (self and interpersonal) functioning and the presence of pathological personality traits. To diagnose antisocial personality disorder, the following criteria must be met:
A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:
   1. Impairments in self functioning (a or b):
a. Identity: Ego-centrism; self-esteem derived from personal gain, power, or pleasure.
b. Self-direction: Goal-setting based on personal gratification; absence of prosocial internal standards associated with failure to conform to lawful or culturally normative ethical behavior.
   2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):
a. Empathy: Lack of concern for feelings, needs, or suffering of others; lack of remorse after hurting or mistreating another.
b. Intimacy: Incapacity for mutually intimate relationships, as exploitation is a primary means of relating to others, including by deceit and coercion; use of dominance or intimidation to control others.
B. Pathological personality traits in the following domains:
   1. Antagonism, characterized by:
a. Manipulativeness: Frequent use of subterfuge to influence or control others; use of seduction, charm, glibness, or ingratiation to achieve one’s ends.
b. Deceitfulness: Dishonesty and fraudulence; misrepresentation of self; embellishment or fabrication when relating events.
c. Callousness: Lack of concern for feelings or problems of others; lack of guilt or remorse about the negative or harmful effects of one’s actions on others; aggression; sadism.
d. Hostility: Persistent or frequent angry feelings; anger or irritability in response to minor slights and insults; mean, nasty, or vengeful behavior.
   2. Disinhibition, characterized by:
a. Irresponsibility: Disregard for – and failure to honor – financial and other obligations or commitments; lack of respect for – and lack of follow through on – agreements and promises.
b. Impulsivity: Acting on the spur of the moment in response to immediate stimuli; acting on a momentary basis without a plan or consideration of outcomes; difficulty establishing and following plans.
c. Risk taking: Engagement in dangerous, risky, and potentially self-damaging activities, unnecessarily and without regard for consequences; boredom proneness and thoughtless initiation of activities to
counter boredom; lack of concern for one’s limitations and denial of the reality of personal danger.
C. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.
D. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual’s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.
E. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).
F. The individual is at least age 18 years.

For those who want to go to the source, I suggest Googling “DSM-IV and DSM-5 Criteria for the Personality Disorders.”  (The two disorders highlighted here are out of sequence; I avoid using links because some systems reject emails containing them).

I think the DSM provides an explanation for Trump’s aberrant behavior.  And, as I said last time, the combination of fear, authoritarianism and narcissism (and now add antisocial behavior) is very dangerous for our country.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com



#105 Addiction to Attention

Hello Everyone,

Almost a year ago, I suggested that Donald Trump exhibits many of the symptoms of “narcissistic personality disorder” and provided the criteria delineated in the American Psychiatric Association’s definition as evidence (Obamagram #100).

As the presidential campaign runs its course, it seems to me that we need only one construct to understand Mr. Trump’s motivation for running for president and his unconventional behavior – his insatiable need for attention.  It’s an addiction.

That’s the only possible explanation for his brief appearance yesterday with the president of Mexico, during which he assumed a diplomatic posture, followed hours later by a return to his inflammatory build-a-wall-that-they-will-pay-for rhetoric.

It is validating to see that a number of other observers are now talking about Mr. Trump’s apparent mental disorders.  After the Republican Convention, David Brooks wrote, “I almost don’t blame Trump. He is a morally untethered, spiritually vacuous man who appears haunted by multiple personality disorders.”

On the NewsHour not long ago, Mr. Brooks said, “…in public, he obviously displays extreme narcissism.”

In the June issue of The Atlantic, Dan P. McAdams, wrote a piece entitled, “The Mind of Donald Trump.”  Prof. McAdams is the chair of the Psychology Department at Northwestern University.  Here are excerpts from his article:

In creating this portrait, I will draw from well-validated concepts in the fields of personality, developmental, and social psychology…

For psychologists, it is almost impossible to talk about Donald Trump without using the word narcissism. Asked to sum up Trump’s personality for an article in Vanity Fair, Howard Gardner, a psychologist at Harvard, responded, “Remarkably narcissistic.” George Simon, a clinical psychologist who conducts seminars on manipulative behavior, says Trump is “so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example” of narcissism…

As nearly everybody knows, Trump has attached his name to pretty much everything he has ever touched…Self-references pervade Trump’s speeches and conversations, too…

To consider the role of narcissism in Donald Trump’s life is to go beyond the dispositional traits of the social actor — beyond the high extroversion and low agreeableness, beyond his personal schemata for decision making — to try to figure out what motivates the man. What does Donald Trump really want?…

Who, really, is Donald Trump? What’s behind the actor’s mask? I can discern little more than narcissistic motivations [emphasis added] and a complementary personal narrative about winning at any cost. It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation. It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why.

I have long thought that Mr. Trump doesn’t really want to be president – he is simply in this race because it is the ultimate means to draw attention to himself.  His dilemma, were he to win (which is extremely unlikely) would be akin to the proverbial dog catching the car.

I think that Mr. Trump’s recent halting attempts to “soften” his tone on immigration and reach out to African Americans is not a pivot to the general election phase of the campaign, but rather a pivot to his post-election aspirations.  His claim that if he loses, it is only because the election was rigged or stolen is also an attempt to set up his post-election narrative.

In that vein, I came across a column last month in the New York Times by Neal Gabler, a journalist and academic.  For me, he has connected the motivational dots.

People run for the presidency for all sorts of reasons. But Donald J. Trump may be the first to run because he sees a presidential campaign as the best way to attract attention to himself [emphasis added.] There seems to be no other driving passion in him, certainly not the passion to govern.

Mr. Trump is no fool. He couldn’t possibly have thought that insulting the Khans, who had lost a son in combat, or dithering over whether to support the speaker of the House, Paul D. Ryan, or disingenuously hinting that the only way to stop Hillary Clinton was to shoot her, would have boosted his prospects for winning. They only boosted the attention paid to him.

Nevertheless, that attention, as we are seeing, won’t necessarily help Mr. Trump win the election, which isn’t to say that there might not be a method to his narcissism. Winning means different things to different candidates. It doesn’t always mean winning the vote.

Mike Huckabee used the attention he got in his losing campaign to land a gig on the Fox News Channel. Sarah Palin used hers to get a reality show and enormous speaking fees. Ben Carson used his to sell books. Losers at the ballot box, they were all winners in a manner of speaking.

If you think of his campaign as a real-estate negotiation, the man who coined the term “art of the deal” has taken a huge edifice, plastered his name all over it without investing much in it, and is very likely to abandon it as a troubled asset once the election is over and its value is diminished, leaving others holding the bag, just as he reportedly did during his serial bankruptcies. Only, in this case, the edifice is the Republican Party. It is Mr. Trump’s biggest deal ever.

And Mr. Trump leaves not only with 18 months of headlines and cheering crowds, but with an even bigger brand. Sarah Ellison of Vanity Fair and Brian Stelter of CNN have speculated that Mr. Trump may want to use his new notoriety to build a media empire. His alliance with Mr. [Stephen] Bannon [of Breitbart News] may help him do that. So may his reported linkup with Roger Ailes for campaign advice.

And, I would add Sean Hannity to the duo of Bannon and Ailes as a third adviser who could help him launch a Trump cable channel.  What better way would there be for Mr. Trump to continue to feed his addiction to attention.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com




#106 A Coda to the “So-Called Campaign” — and What’s Next

Hello Everyone,

With less than a week to go in this most unusual presidential election, I would like to offer a few closing thoughts about this “so-called campaign” and what its aftermath might be.

A few of you may recall that in October of last year I wrote #100:  “Will the Narcissist Help to Restore Sanity?” In it, I was half right.  Over these many months, Trump has put on display his full array of symptoms of “narcissistic personality disorder.”  I was also half wrong.  His poll numbers didn’t fade during the primaries and neither did he.

I think David Brook’s observations in that commentary, with his references to Max Weber, are worth re-reading.

Regardless of Trump’s dismaying staying power, it has become ever clearer to me that his reality-show-imitation of a campaign has never been susceptible to political analysis, only psychoanalysis.

I have come to sympathize with the responsible media. As with real campaigns, they have sought to report on both candidates’ activities as though they were engaged in a highly complicated game, like chess.  That type of traditional analysis has been appropriate in reporting Sen. Clinton’s campaign, even as she has been dragged into the gutter.

In stark contrast, Trump clearly has been playing some other sort of game.  Let’s call it solitaire, to extend the metaphor further. The simplest and most self-centered of all games and hardly worthy of commentary.  And, even then, he seems to be cheating – if we can liken incessant lying to cheating.

For Trump, this game of politics is all about him.  About his incessant need to call attention to himself. That’s how a narcissist feeds his all-consuming addiction.

How else can we explain his outlandish behavior, his endless “missteps”?  How else can we explain his need to insult dozens of people across the political spectrum?  (See this October 23, 2016, list published in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/01/28/upshot/donald-trump-twitter-insults.html.)  Why would he take on gold star parents and a beauty queen after the conventions?  Attention.

After Trump’s resounding defeat, it will be fascinating to see how he further contorts himself as he desperately tries to stay in the spotlight.  He may try to mount a cable channel, but that will hardly satisfy his voracious need for attention – the audience will be too small and his antics will largely be ignored.  And, he will no longer be able to take masterful advantage of the FCC’s Equal Time rule and the platform of a presidential primary and general election to garner the attention of the mainstream media.

I even doubt that Trump’s claims of a rigged election are intended to make excuses for his impending defeat or to delegitimize Sen. Clinton in her victory.  They are just another way to remain in the spotlight.  At whatever cost.  Even to our democracy and its institutions and traditions.  Nixon didn’t do that.  Gore didn’t do that.

One has to wonder to what extent we will pay attention to Trump’s torrent of insults and outrageous behavior when they are no longer considered “newsworthy.”  Perhaps he will become nothing more than a staple on Entertainment Tonight, with all its irony.

More troubling, however, is the question of who will attempt to appeal to those voters whose genuine grievances – like those related to the re-shaping of the American economy and job market — remain.  Hopefully, it will not be another demagogue, whether faux or real.

As this “non-campaign” campaign enters its final days and when we reflect back on it and its history is written, I remain convinced that the only lens through which it can be seen clearly will be psychological, not political.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


#107 Attention to Work

Hello Everyone,

In the wake of the stunning election results and in light of how wrong I was in predicting its outcome, I’m not sure that you want to hear from me anymore. If you don’t, just press “reply” and say “enough,” and I’ll understand.

For those who choose to remain, I’m preparing a regular-length commentary. But, I am on my way to Amherst for some meetings, so it won’t go out until next week.

In the interim, I wanted to share a quick thought from a special friend that captures my current state of mind better than I could on my own.

Soon after we heard the startling outcome of this election, I emailed Valerie Jarrett to see how she was doing. As some of you know, she is a long-time friend and confidant of President Obama who has been with him in the White House for his entire term. She carries the lofty title of Senior Advisor and Special Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Engagement. Her daughter graduated from Amherst in ’07.

In this picture, Valerie is the woman leaning on the column with her arms crossed. It captures the glum mood of the White House staff in the Rose Garden as President Obama was speaking about the election, as published in the Huffington Post.  PHOTO: doc1

As usual, Valerie’s response to my email was quick and incisive, “We will grieve for a moment, but then get back to work from the most important office of all: Citizen.”

That’s good advice for all of us. So, let’s get back to work as Citizens, keeping our country strong.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


#108 Homelessness, Coping, and Working

Hello Everyone,

Some of you have asked that I keep writing these commentaries, even after the President leaves office.  I’ve decided to do that and to keep calling them “Obamagrams” with the aspiration that they will be as thoughtful and civil as their namesake.

The day after the election, I was as shocked as anyone.  The ecstasy of the Cubs’ victory vanished in a flash.  I knew it would take some time, if ever, to understand what happened and what to do going forward.

While I avoided most of the news coverage that day, I did notice one column that reflected my emotions.  I’m sure some of you saw it, too.

In a piece entitled, “Homeless in America,” Tom Friedman wrote (see Attachment 1):

…I have more fear than I’ve ever had in my 63 years that we could…break our country, that we could become so irreparably divided that our national government will not function…

How do I explain [the president-elect’s] victory?…my gut tells me that it has much less to do with trade or income gaps and much more to do with culture and many Americans’ feeling of “homelessness”…

… For some it is because America is becoming a minority-majority country and this has threatened the sense of community of many…

For others it is the dizzying whirlwind of technological change we’re now caught up in. It has either wiped out their job or transformed their workplace in ways they find disorienting…When the two most important things in your life are upended — the workplace and community that anchor you and give you identity — it’s not surprising that people are disoriented and reach for the simplistic solutions touted by a would-be strongman…

Personally, I will not wish them [the Republicans and the president-elect] ill…Unlike the Republican Party for the last eight years, I am not going to try to make my president fail. If he fails, we all fail…

But at the moment I am in anguish, frightened for my country and for our unity. And for the first time, I feel homeless in America. [emphasis added]

The morning after, for the first time, I also felt homeless in my own country.

The day after the election, as I was doing my regular drive from Evanston to Hyde Park, I happened to listen to a Fresh Air podcast during which Terry Gross interviewed a hospice chaplain.  She said that in her work with the dying, she tries to:

be calm,

be present, and

be together.

That’s good advice for all of us now.

On that Wednesday morning, Dr. Eric Witherspoon, the superintendent of Evanston Township High School, addressed his students, faculty, and staff, saying:

This morning I want to remind all of you that ETHS is a safe and welcoming place for you. You attend a school where we not only respect differences, we embrace our diversity…Today, I urge you to be kind and caring to one another. Redouble your support for one another. And even though we cannot always control what is going on in the larger world around us, we can define our own school, our own community.

Our high school is highly unusual: a diverse student body (44% white; 30% black; 18% Latino; 40% low income), but well-resourced ($22,000 per student). (I am now aware that we don’t break “low income” down by race and ethnicity.  More on that in future commentaries.)

You can read Dr. Witherspoon’s inspiring message in Attachment 2.

I have reached one preliminary conclusion to the question about what to do going forward.  Pay attention to work.  Just like Valerie Jarrett advised.  Double down on it.  It is something that we can control.  It’s also a way to “be together.” To build community.

A dozen years ago, I stopped “working for pay” and starting “paying to work.”  I don’t have a job, but I work full time.  I find community in my work, and I’m especially blessed to have meaningful work to do now.

So, the day after the election, I carried on with my work, including:

— talking with our son, a professional investor, to understand why the stock
markets went up and the bond markets went down on this news;
— helping advise a foundation program officer about getting an MBA;
— introducing a new fundraiser with whom I’m working to one of our best funders;
— continuing to work on a small campaign for an educational research organization; and
— attending a 10th anniversary celebration for a group that does professional development
for principals and college counselors in Chicago.

You get the picture.  I’m just focusing on my work.  Trying to be calm, present, and together.  And, in the process, being communitarian.

The Importance of Work.
This election has been a wake-up call for me.  We have a huge problem in our country of which we have long been aware, but haven’t done nearly enough to address.  As Tom Friedman said, many of our citizens have not only lost their jobs, but also their “work”, or the essence of it, and therefore their identities, due largely to automation and to globalization as well.

The president-elect has promised to address that problem which will undermine our democracy if it goes unaddressed much longer.  It won’t be as simple or quick as he’s promised, but I hope he succeeds in making progress on it.  Ironically, there won’t be the “small government” answers to this issue that Republicans have traditionally favored.  I’ll write about that in the future.

Be calm, be present, be together.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


adobe pdf file      attachment-1-nyt-friedman-homeless-in-america-11-8-16


adobe pdf file   attachment-2-eths-dr-witherspoon-11-9-16

# 109 Tweetocracy

Hello Everyone,

At the end of last week, I was in Washington, D.C., for a board meeting.  I must say, I felt like I was visiting a foreign land this time.

On Friday morning, I had breakfast with my friend Valerie Jarrett.  We talked about how it felt to leave the White House and the grave concerns we now share.  In the end, we returned to the advice she gave me the day after the election: “grieve for a moment, but then get back to work from the most important office of all: Citizen.”

Then, President Obama called me yesterday to say hello.  I told him how much we already miss him.

Several of you have asked when I was going to offer some reassuring words.  Despite my optimistic bent, I regret that I don’t see any easy way out of the pickle we have gotten ourselves into.  I only hope that the country is simply going through a period of temporary insanity.  I am hopeful that steadfast vigilance and a pervasive sense of personal responsibility will ultimately help our democracy recover from the assaults it is currently enduring.

Two disturbing, but effective, calls to action are David Frum’s “How to Build an Autocracy” (he was a speech writer for the last President Bush) and Jonathan Rauch’s “Containing Trump.”  Both articles are in the current issue of The Atlantic.  For those who haven’t yet read them, please see attachments 1 and 2.

Frum paints a grim picture of Trump building either an “autocracy” (government by a single person with absolute power) or a “kleptocracy” (government by corrupt rulers who seek power and status primarily to enrich themselves.)

While Frum’s and Rauch’s warnings about autocracy and kleptocracy are convincing, I continue to think that Trump is driven by a basic need even more fundamental than political power (why didn’t he seek it earlier, and why doesn’t he have a coherent ideology?) or financial gain (he will never come close to being the richest person in the world.) I continue to contend that his needs are primarily psychological.  He is fundamentally driven by his narcissism.  He needs to be the center of attention at all times.  He tweets for attention, not to set policy, negotiate or anything else.

Appropriate to our tech-obsessed times, I believe that Trump is building a “tweetocracy.”  Shallow, self-centered, impulsive, and infantile, endlessly demanding that we pay attention to him.  His tweets are the written version of a selfie stick.

The greatest threat to our fragile democracy comes not from Trump the autocrat or kleptocrat, but from Trump the “chaotic clown,” an apt term coined by David Brooks.

Trump seems to be like a baby whale at Sea World, performing for nothing more than applause and fish.  The danger comes not from Shamu’s offspring, but from the parasites who attach themselves to him.  White supremacists named Sessions, Miller, and Bannon.

Regardless of his motives, we need to take heed of Frum’s and Rauch’s alarms because Trump’s parasites are starting to inflict great harm on our democracy, even if it is not their host’s intention.

Here are some snippets from Frum:

Checks and balances is a metaphor, not a mechanism…[The imagined horrors are] possible only if many people…agree to permit it…It can all be stopped if citizens and public officials make the right choices…‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’…‘Ambition must be made to counter-act ambition’…If the public cannot be induced to care, [Trump and his people will have their way]…If people retreat into private life, if critics grow quieter, if cynicism becomes endemic, the corruption will slowly become more brazen, the intimidation of opponents stronger…[Trump] is so pathetically needy, so shamelessly self-interested, so fitful and distracted [think Twitter]…What happens next is up to you and me.

Rauch takes a decidedly different tack.  He starts his analysis by reminding us that, nearly fifty years ago, Richard Nixon engaged in a vast array of criminal conduct, presumably in the pursuit of power and maintaining his grip on it and driven by his paranoia (visit the Nixon library website to listen to the tapes):

Authoritarianism lies not in any individual presidential action but in the patterns of action…a civil-society mobilization involves multitudes of groups and people forming a whole greater than the sum of its parts…Nixon’s gift to American democracy was to inadvertently establish the infrastructure that will contain Trump.

As usual, David Brooks has analyzed our predicament better than I can.  That’s because he’s a professional, and I’m not.

In his column yesterday, he offers three resistance models tailored to the three types of threats he thinks that we may be facing: autocracy (referring to Frum’s article, too); stagnation and corruption; or incompetence and anarchy.

He concludes that, if the first three weeks are any guide, the principal threat is “incompetence and anarchy”, concluding that, “In this scenario, the crucial question is how to replace and repair [sound familiar?] The model for the resistance is Gerald Ford, a decent, modest, experienced public servant who believed in the institutions of government, who restored faith in government, who had a plan to bind the nation’s wounds and restored normalcy and competence.”

Let’s all ignore the tweets from the chaotic clown and keep working from the most important office of all: Citizen.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


adobe pdf file   Attachment #1 — The Atlantic — D. Frum 3-2017


adobe pdf file     Attachment #2 — The Atlantic — J. Rauch – March 2017


adobe pdf fileAttachment #3 — NYT — D. Brooks — 2-14-17


#110 Selfishness

Hello Everyone,

My wife, Penny Sebring, and I have just returned from a trip to South Africa with a group of students from Grinnell College.  At this top liberal arts college, they participate in a career exploration and planning program called Education Professions, which we started.  We travelled to Cape Town and Johannesburg to learn about their education systems in the context of the country’s racial history which has much in common with our own.

While we were there, we were frequently asked to explain how we could have possibly elected Donald Trump as our president.  I came to say that it was simply our nation’s period of “temporary insanity.”

While we were in South Africa in the spirit of trans-national cooperation, Trump announced that he had decided to withdraw from the Paris climate accord in a decidedly different spirit.

As usual, I found David Brooks’ column useful in making sense of that woefully wrong-headed decision (see attachment.)  In part, Brooks wrote:

This week, two of Donald Trump’s top advisers, H. R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, wrote the following passage in The Wall Street Journal: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a cleareyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

That sentence is the epitome of the Trump project. It asserts that selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs [emphasis added].

Selfishness is the operative word here.  And, the extreme manifestation of selfishness is narcissism, where the self is the epicenter of the universe.  Some of you may recall that I identified Trump as a narcissist in Obamagram #100, about 20 months ago, fairly early in the last campaign.  He continues to act true to form.

Brooks convincingly argues that self interest is not the only, nor even the dominate, force that drives human behavior.

In the essay, McMaster and Cohn make explicit the great act of moral decoupling woven through this presidency. In this worldview, morality has nothing to do with anything…Everything is about self-interest.

…Powerful, selfish people have always adopted this dirty-minded realism to justify their own selfishness. The problem is that this philosophy is based on an error about human beings and it leads to self-destructive behavior in all cases.

The error is that it misunderstands what drives human action. Of course people are driven by selfish motivations — for individual status, wealth and power. But they are also motivated by another set of drives — for solidarity, love and moral fulfillment — that are equally and sometimes more powerful.

People are wired to cooperate…

People have a moral sense…

People yearn for righteousness…

People are attracted by goodness and repelled by selfishness…

Good leaders like Lincoln, Churchill, Roosevelt and Reagan [and Mandela and Tutu] understand the selfish elements that drive human behavior, but they have another foot in the realm of the moral motivations…They try to motivate action by pointing toward great ideals.

Realist leaders like Trump, McMaster and Cohn seek to dismiss this whole moral realm. By behaving with naked selfishness toward others, they poison the common realm and they force others to behave with naked selfishness toward them…

They make our country seem disgusting in the eyes of the world.

That brings me full circle to our trip to South Africa.  One of the people we met with was Craig Paxton, a native South African and a colleague of Penny’s who founded and runs an educational NGO called Axium in a very rural area in the east.  In that most unlikely of places, he employs research done by Penny and her UChicago Consortium partners that discovered that five factors, or Essential Supports, are necessary for creating effective school cultures.  Apropos of Brooks’ observations, this research emphasizes the power of collaboration among all of the adults involved in children’s education – school leaders, teachers, and families – all in an atmosphere of “relational trust.”

The contrasts between those research findings on collaboration and their shared application between nations 9,000 miles apart, on the one hand, and Trump’s most recent display of selfishness could not be more stark.

I also continue to see almost all of his behavior, from his major decisions to his most banal tweets – not in conventional political terms, like “playing to his base” – but simply as efforts to attract non-stop attention.  Only in this way, can he feed the insatiable demons of his narcissism — the most extreme form of selfishness.

Similarly, while in South Africa, it is hard to avoid the lessons that apartheid (the Afrikaans word for “apart” and “hood”) has to teach us.  Apartheid in South Africa, and Bannon-style white supremacy in our own country, are both prime examples of selfishness run amok.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


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Brooks – Donald Trump Poisons the World – NYT 6-2-17


#111 Making Exoskeletons to Support and Protect Our Democracy

Hello Everyone,

A few days ago, I heard a Fresh Air interview with the liberal commentator E.J. Dionne and his conservative collaborator Norman Ornstein. I’m sure many of you did, too.  They were discussing their new book, One Nation After Trump.

Surviving Trump
The book tries to explain how a president who daily raises profound questions about his basic competence and his psychological capacity could have been elected and how our democracy will survive his presidency.

During the three months since I last wrote in this space, I have thought a good deal about both questions.  While Dionne and Ornstein are much more qualified to opine on such matters than I am, I generally agree with their assessments.  I, too, am optimistic that we will survive Trump, thinking that perhaps he is just the kind of ultimate absurdity that we need to break the dysfunction-fever that has come to afflict our national politics.  From the book:

Rolling back the Trump threat requires seeing that he represents an extreme acceleration of a process long under way…It involves the decline of basic norms in politics, governing, and the media as well as the decay of institutions that are central to republican government.  The radicalization of the Republican Party…began three decades ago…Republican leaders…for decades had taught their supporters to distrust Washington and to hate government.

The authors postulate that there has been a concerted, insidious, and persistent effort for nearly thirty years to disable or destroy our governmental institutions, most especially the Senate and the House.  I believe that by consciously seeking to sew dysfunction, these forces have been attempting to “shrink the size of government” at all levels – and, they’ve been doing a very good job of it.

Dionne and Ornstein lay the origins of this movement at the feet of Newt Gingrich. Elected to the House in 1978, he assiduously tried to blow it up, ultimately leading to his so-called “Contract with America” (what one of my son-in-laws calls the “Contract on America”) in 1994 when he had ascended to the speakership.  Then, they trace it through the “Hastert Rule” and Mitch McConnell’s one-term Obama pledge all the way through the latter’s refusal to follow normal protocols in considering Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court and the subsequent elimination of the filibuster in order to get Gorsuch confirmed.  In my view, you could add the Tea Party phenomenon to this litany.

Moreover, I would point to Sara Palin as the perfect precursor to Donald Trump – another woefully unqualified, larger-than-life, vacuous candidate for high office.

Before proceeding, I should make it clear that I do not believe that Donald Trump has been part of this ideologically-driven decades-long assault on our governmental institutions, regardless of his support of the “birther” movement.  I remain convinced that he is driven by nothing more than feeding his clinically-diagnosable narcissism, as I first wrote in #100 in 2015.  We should continue to view all of his scatter-shot decisions and impulsive tweets through that single lens.

As the book’s title One Nation After Trump suggests, there is ample reason to believe that our democracy will survive both Trump and this decades-long assault on its institutions.  In fact, as Steven Pinker seems to argue in his marvelous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, the very process of civilization inevitably leads to ever-expanding government.  Perhaps I will write more on Pinker at another time.

Having said all of that, I wonder if we pay undue attention to our federal government.  It is tempting to do so because it is the biggest game and it unceasingly calls attention to itself – even absent a narcissist like Trump to aid and abet it – supplying endless free “content” for the news media in the process.

Rather than assigning undue weight to the decisions of the 545 key people who lead the three branches of our national government, I think it can be argued that one source of America’s real strength – and salvation – lies in our 323 million citizens and our incredibly diverse array of non-governmental institutions and the endless web of informal connections among them.

An Example: The Exoskeleton
I would like to offer a prime example of the strength of our non-governmental institutions by describing a conceptual framework I have recently conceived.  I call it Chicago’s “Education Exoskeleton.”  Of course, it is only one small example of this much larger phenomenon.

Let me try to briefly explain.  A more detailed memorandum I have written on the subject is in the first attachment.

Our school district here is called Chicago Public Schools, or CPS.  It’s the third largest in the country.  Like most urban districts, it faces a myriad of challenges.  It is constantly being asked to do more with less.  But, CPS is making discernable progress nonetheless as evidenced by a 17 percentage point rise in graduation rates over the last ten years.

Within that context, I would claim that over the last thirty-five years or so – nearly concurrent with the Gingrich-initiated assault on our national governmental institutions – Chicago’s non-governmental institutions have organically and unwittingly been constructing an informal Exoskeleton to help our public schools.

First, a little refresher from high school biology.  An exoskeleton is a “rigid external covering providing support and protection for the body.” (I believe that this is a stronger metaphor than the “ecosystem” one currently popular in other realms.)  To my mind, the most useful example of an exoskeleton is the shell of the Galapagos giant tortoise. In this case, the tortoise’s exoskeleton connects with its endoskeleton, making it an especially good metaphor for how Chicago’s Exoskeleton connects with Chicago’s public schools in serving to “support and protect” them.

Much like a Galapagos giant tortoise, our Exoskeleton is composed of a large number of interconnected institutional “plates.”  In my construct, there are primarily two kinds of plates at work here:  foundations/philanthropists and nonprofit/civic organizations.

I can personally trace the Exoskeleton’s nonprofit plates’ origins back to philanthropist Irving Harris’ founding in 1982 of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a leading early-childhood provider and advocacy organization.

Skipping ahead, in 1990, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research was founded.  It is a highly influential independent research group which works with Chicago public schools to determine what is working, what is not, and why. (Full disclosure: my wife, Penny Sebring, co-founded it with her colleague Tony Bryk).

Illustrative of my concept of interdependent plates, the UChicago Consortium was launched with the support of the Joyce, MacArthur, and Spencer foundations and is currently partnering on a project with the aforementioned Ounce.

Now, dozens of nonprofits and foundations have organically and largely without forethought come together to produce the Exoskeleton for our schools.  It is an informal, and up to now an unnamed and largely unconscious, network serving the public good.  See the attachment for more.

The Chicago Education Exoskeleton is but one example among many thousands of how local institutions unrelated to government continue to support our democratic way of life and why I think our country will become “one nation after Trump.”  There are variations on Chicago’s Exoskeleton in virtually every city, town, and village across America.

Hope from Fallows
Along those lines, I have taken hope, as many of you no doubt have, from the writings of James Fallows in The Atlantic (see the second attachment.)

The long years I have spent living and working outside the United States have…sharpened my appreciation for the practical ramifications of the American idea. For me this is the belief that through its cycle of struggle and renewal, the United States is in a continual process of becoming a better version of itself [emphasis added]. What I have seen directly over the past decade…has reinforced my sense that our current era has been another one of painful but remarkable reinvention, in which the United States is doing more than most other societies to position itself, despite technological and economic challenges, for a new era of prosperity, opportunity, and hope.

But just as Trump’s appeal seemed grossly out of touch with modern African American life, so does the heartland-rage theory miss the optimism and determination that are intertwined with desolation and decay in the real “out there.” I can say that because I have been out there, reporting with my wife, Deb, in smaller-town America for much of the past four years.

According to a…2016 [study], two in three Americans said that good ideas for dealing with national social and economic challenges were coming from their towns. Fewer than one in three felt that good ideas were coming from national institutions. These results also underscore the sense my wife and I took unmistakably from our visits: that city by city, and at the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear, Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms [emphasis added].

Nearly a century ago, Walter Lippmann wrote that the challenge for democracies is that citizens necessarily base decisions on the “pictures in our heads,” the images of reality we construct for ourselves. The American public has…made a decision of the gravest consequence [electing Trump], largely based on distorted, frightening, and bigoted caricatures of reality that we all would recognize as caricature if applied to our own communities.

I am optimistic that we will become one nation after Trump because of the comity and collaboration that we see on display every day in our own lives in our own communities.  As Ken Burns and Lynn Novak are currently reminding us, our nation was torn apart by the Vietnam War and all manner of strife – assassinations, presidential resignations, civil rights and women’s rights, hyperinflation, and more during the 1960’s and 70’s – and emerged even stronger.  With the support and protection of our various exoskeletons, we’ll survive the current strife, too.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com



adobe pdf fileA Memorandum on Chicago’s Education Exoskeleton


adobe pdf fileThe Atlantic — J. Fallows – Jan. Feb. 2017 issue

#112 Obama, Mandela, and Hope

Hello Everyone,

President Obama gave a major lecture in Johannesburg last week commemorating the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandel’s birth, offering his customarily knowledgeable and wise perspective on world history over those 100 years, our current predicament, and reasons to be hopeful going forward.  A very welcome breath of fresh air.

In this space, I have frequently argued that it is powerful to read Obama’s speeches, not just listen to or read news accounts of them.  His Mandela talk is characteristically long, so I will seek to tempt you with the following excerpts.

(Longtime readers will notice that I have been silent for some time.  That is due to two reasons.  These are Obamagrams, and they won’t deteriorate into something else. And, as I first wrote about Trump’s narcissism in #100 Will the Narcissist Help to Restore Sanity (in October 2015, a year before the election), his words and deeds are not subject to political analysis, only psychoanalysis.  Everything can be understood in terms of his unbridled narcissism and utter lack of empathy leading to his endless bullying and cruelty.  His narcissism is like an addiction.  That’s why I won’t write much about him. Attention is his opioid and his Twitter account is his needle. Full stop.  Nothing more to say.)

Let’s return to the positive purpose of this Obamagram.  These excerpts will give you a sense of Obama’s historical perspective and cause for hope.  I encourage you to read his lecture in its entirety (see attachment).

… given the strange and uncertain times that we are in — and they are strange, and they are uncertain — I thought maybe it would be useful to step back for a moment and try to get some perspective…

One hundred years ago, Madiba [his Xhosa clan name] was born in the village of Mvezo…

There was no reason to believe that a young black boy at this time, in this place, could in any way alter history…

[The view of the world at that time was] that certain races, certain nations, certain groups were inherently superior, and that violence and coercion [was] the primary basis for governance…

And around the globe, the majority of people lived at subsistence levels, without a say in the politics or economic forces that determined their lives…The average person saw no possibility of advancing from the circumstances of their birth. Women were almost uniformly subordinate to men.

That was the world just 100 years ago…It is hard, then, to overstate the remarkable transformations that have taken place since that time…

Nelson Mandela…came to embody…the possibility of a moral transformation in the conduct of human affairs [emphasis added] …

as a law student, I witnessed Madiba emerge from prison, just a few months…after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I felt the same wave of hope that washed through hearts all around the world…

Yes, there were still tragedies…

[But,] from Europe to Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, dictatorships began to give way to democracies…

And with these geopolitical changes came sweeping economic changes. The introduction of market-based principles…the forces of global integration powered by new technologies…

scientific breakthroughs and…the reduction of armed conflicts. And suddenly a billion people were lifted out of poverty…

That’s what happened just over the course of a few decades… and it all happened in what — by the standards of human history — was nothing more than a blink of an eye…

It should make us hopeful…

[But] the previous structures of privilege and power and injustice and exploitation never completely went away…

And while globalization and technology have opened up new opportunities…[they] upended the agricultural and manufacturing sectors in many countries… made it easier for capital to avoid tax laws and the regulations of nation-states…

explosion in economic inequality…a few dozen individuals control the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of humanity [emphasis added]. That’s not an exaggeration, that’s a statistic…

while some Western commentators were declaring the end of history and the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy and the virtues of the global supply chain, so many missed signs of a brewing backlash…It announced itself most violently with 9/11 and the emergence of transnational terrorist networks…

Russia, already humiliated by its reduced influence since the collapse of the Soviet Union… suddenly started reasserting authoritarian control and in some cases meddling with its neighbors. China, emboldened by its economic success, started bristling against criticism of its human rights record…

challenges to globalization first came from the left but then came more forcefully from the right, as you started seeing populist movements…often cynically funded by right-wing billionaires…

the devastating impact of the 2008 financial crisis, in which the reckless behavior of financial elites resulted in years of hardship for ordinary people…

And a politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear…

Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained…

The free press is under attack…

So on Madiba’s 100th birthday, we now stand at a crossroads — a moment in time at which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and the minds of citizens around the world…

Let me tell you what I believe. I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision. I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln. I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multiracial democracy…And I believe we…have a better story to tell…I believe it based on hard evidence.

The fact that the world’s most prosperous and successful societies… happen to be those which have most closely approximated the liberal, progressive ideal…

The fact that authoritarian governments have been shown time and time again to breed corruption…to engage in bigger and bigger lies that ultimately result in economic and political and cultural and scientific stagnation [emphasis added]…

to say that our vision for the future is better is not to say that it will inevitably win. Because history also shows the power of fearWe’re going to have to learn from the mistakes of the recent past [emphasis added]…

So we’ve got to constantly be on the lookout…for people who seek to elevate themselves by putting somebody else down [emphasis added]…

We’re going to have to find ways to lessen the fears of those who feel threatened…

You have to believe in facts…

Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up…

We have to follow Madiba’s example of persistence and of hope. It is tempting to give in to cynicism: to believe…that the pendulum has swung permanently…We have to resist that cynicism.

Because, we’ve been through darker times, we’ve been in lower valleys and deeper valleys…

And, for those of us who care about the legacy that we honor here today — about equality and dignity and democracy and solidarity and kindness, those of us who remain young at heart, if not in body — we have an obligation to help our youth succeed…

Madiba reminds us that: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart…”

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


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Attachment – Obama Mandela Speech July 2018


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