Most Viewed Videos 2012


Merry Christmas


The Debt Ceiling?

Fighting Fiscal Phantoms


These are difficult times for the deficit scolds who have dominated policy discussion for almost three years. One could almost feel sorry for them, if it weren’t for their role in diverting attention from the ongoing problem of inadequate recovery, and thereby helping to perpetuate catastrophically high unemployment. What has changed? For one thing, the crisis they predicted keeps not happening. Far from fleeing U.S. debt, investors have continued to pile in, driving interest rates to historical lows. Beyond that, suddenly the clear and present danger to the American economy isn’t that we’ll fail to reduce the deficit enough; it is, instead, that we’ll reduce the deficit too much. For that’s what the “fiscal cliff” — better described as the austerity bomb — is all about: the tax hikes and spending cuts scheduled to kick in at the end of this year are precisely not what we want to see happen in a still-depressed economy.

Given these realities, the deficit-scold movement has lost some of its clout. That movement, by the way, is a hydra-headed beast, comprising many organizations that turn out, on inspection, to be financed and run by more or less the same people; dig down into many of these groups’ back stories and you will, in particular, find Peter Peterson, the private-equity billionaire, playing a key role.

But the deficit scolds aren’t giving up. Now yet another organization, Fix the Debt, is campaigning for cuts to Social Security and Medicare, even while making lower tax rates a “core principle.” That last part makes no sense in terms of the group’s ostensible mission, but makes perfect sense if you look at the array of big corporations, from Goldman Sachs to the UnitedHealth Group, that are involved in the effort and would benefit from tax cuts. Hey, sacrifice is for the little people.

So should we take this latest push seriously? No — and not just because these people, aside from exhibiting a lot of hypocrisy, have been wrong about everything so far. The truth is that at a fundamental level the crisis story they’re trying to sell doesn’t make sense.

You’ve heard the story many times: Supposedly, any day now investors will lose faith in America’s ability to come to grips with its budget failures. When they do, there will be a run on Treasury bonds, interest rates will spike, and the U.S. economy will plunge back into recession.

This sounds plausible to many people, because it’s roughly speaking what happened to Greece. But we’re not Greece, and it’s almost impossible to see how this could actually happen to a country in our situation.
For we have our own currency — and almost all of our debt, both private and public, is denominated in dollars. So our government, unlike the Greek government, literally can’t run out of money. After all, it can print the stuff. So there’s almost no risk that America will default on its debt — I’d say no risk at all if it weren’t for the possibility that Republicans would once again try to hold the nation hostage over the debt ceiling.

But if the U.S. government prints money to pay its bills, won’t that lead to inflation? No, not if the economy is still depressed.

Now, it’s true that investors might start to expect higher inflation some years down the road. They might also push down the value of the dollar. Both of these things, however, would actually help rather than hurt the U.S. economy right now: expected inflation would discourage corporations and families from sitting on cash, while a weaker dollar would make our exports more competitive.

Still, haven’t crises like the one envisioned by deficit scolds happened in the past? Actually, no. As far as I can tell, every example supposedly illustrating the dangers of debt involves either a country that, like Greece today, lacked its own currency, or a country that, like Asian economies in the 1990s, had large debts in foreign currencies. Countries with large debts in their own currency, like France after World War I, have sometimes experienced big loss-of-confidence drops in the value of their currency — but nothing like the debt-induced recession we’re being told to fear.

So let’s step back for a minute, and consider what’s going on here. For years, deficit scolds have held Washington in thrall with warnings of an imminent debt crisis, even though investors, who continue to buy U.S. bonds, clearly believe that such a crisis won’t happen; economic analysis says that such a crisis can’t happen; and the historical record shows no examples bearing any resemblance to our current situation in which such a crisis actually did happen.

If you ask me, it’s time for Washington to stop worrying about this phantom menace — and to stop listening to the people who have been peddling this scare story in an attempt to get their way.


Silent Night SNL 12/15/12




Happy 70th Jimi Hendrix


Second Term



Happy Birthday MK




In a seven-song acoustic set, including a humorous, tossed-off stab at a campaign song called "Forward," Springsteen also spoke from the heart:

I'm here today for Ohio, and for President Obama, and because for 30 years I've been writing about the distance between the American dream and American reality. I've been gauging that distance through a big part of my life. I've seen it from inside and oustide: as a blue-collar kid from a working-class home in New Jersey — where my parents struggled, not always successfully, to make ends meet — to the Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Katrina, to meeting folks from food pantries all around the United States, working daily to help our struggling citizens through the hard times we've been suffering through.

Our vote — our vote is the one principal way we get to determine that distance in that equation. Voting matters. Elections matter. Think of the events of the last 12 years and try to convince yourself they don't. We get an individual hand in shaping the kind of America we want our kids to grow up in.

I'm a dad, I've got three kids, I'm 63... and I've lived through some galvanizing moments in American history: the Civil Rights struggle, the peace movement, times when you could feel the world shifting under your feet. I remember President Obama's election night was an evening when you could feel the locked doors of the past finally being blown open to new possibilities.

But then comes a hard, daily struggle to make those possiblties real in a world that is brutally resistant to change. We've seen that over the past four years; the forces of our opposition have been tireless.

But I came here today because I'm thankful for universal health care, the lack of which was for so long an embarrassment to our country. I'm thankful for a more regulated Wall Street. I'm thankful GM is still making cars. What else would I write about?! I'd have no job without that!

I'm here today because I'm concerned about women's rights. I don't have to tell you about the dangers to Roe v. Wade under our opponent's policies.

I'm also here today because of the continuing disparity in wealth between our best-off citizens and our everday citizens. That's a disparity that I believe our honorable opponents' policies will only increase and that threatens to divide us into two distinct and foreign nations, until many of us are going to end up like a song I wrote in the 1980s, "Jackson Cage": "just the scenery in another man's play." If we marginalize so many of our citizens, their talents, their energies, their voices will go unfound and unheard. We will lose their contributions to this great land of ours; we will impoverish ourselves and set ourselves on the road to decline. So their opportunities must be protected, and I think President Obama understands this.

And I'm here today because I've lived long enough to know that despite those galvanizing moments in history, the future is rarely a tide rushing in. It's often a slow march, inch by inch, day after long day, and I believe we are in the midst of those long days right now. And I'm here because I believe President Obama feels those days in his bone, for all 100 percent of us. I believe he's got the strength, the commitment, and the vision to live these days with us, and to carry the standard forward toward a country where, as I've written, "nobody crowds you, and nobody goes it alone."


Wake the Fuck Up


One More Term


Republican National Convention

Republican National Convention:
By Ezra Klein , Updated: August 28, 2012

On the Republican convention stage tonight, you’re going to see a really large clock. But
the clock isn’t for keeping time. The idea isn’t to stop speakers from going over their
allotted time, or the convention from running late. It’s a debt clock. And the idea is to
blame President Obama and the Democrats for the national debt.
But in doing so, the Republicans will end up blaming Obama for the policies they pushed in
the Bush years, and the recession that began on a Republican president’s watch, and a
continuation of tax cuts that they supported. They’ll have to. Because if they took all that off
the debt clock, there wouldn’t be much debt there to blame him for at all.
The single thing you should look at to understand the debt clock and what it is — or isn’t —
telling you is this graph from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It does something
very simple. It takes public debt since 2001 — which is when we last saw surpluses — and
breaks it into its component parts.
You can see it kind of looks like a layer cake. In fact, the folks at the Center on Budget and
Policy Priorities call it “the parfait graph.”
The top layer, the orange one, that’s the Bush tax cuts. There is no single policy we have
passed that has added as much to the debt, or that is projected to add as much to the debt in
the future, as the Bush tax cuts, which Republicans passed in 2001 and 2003 and Obama
and the Republicans extended in 2010. To my knowledge, all elected Republicans want to
make the Bush tax cuts permanent. Democrats, by and large, want to end them for income
over $250,000.
In second place is the economic crisis. That’s the medium blue. Recessions drive tax
revenue down because people lose their jobs, and when you lose your job, you lose your
income, and when you lose your income, you can’t pay taxes. Tax revenues in recent years
have been 15.4 percent of GDP — the lowest level since the 1950s. Meanwhile, they drive
social spending up, because programs like unemployment insurance and Medicaid
automatically begin spending more to help the people who have been laid off.
Then comes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s the red. And then recovery measures
like the stimulus. That’s the light blue, and the part for which you can really blame Obama
and the Democrats– though it’s worth remembering that the stimulus had to happen because
Republican National Convention: The one graph you need to see before watching | Wonkblog 8/28/12 5:01 PM
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/wp/2012/08/28/repub…convention-the-one-graph-you-need-to-see-before-watching/?print=1 Page 2 of 2
of a recession that began before Obama entered office, and that the Senate Republicans
proposed and voted for a $3 trillion tax cut stimulus that would have added almost four
times what Obama’s stimulus added to the debt.
Then there’s the financial rescue measures like TARP, which is the dark blue line. That’s
almost nothing, as much of that money has been paid back.
If we didn’t have all that? If there’d been no Bush tax cuts, no wars, no financial crisis and
everything else had been the same? Debt would be between 20 and 30 percent of GDP
today, rather than almost 100 percent.
Now, the response you sometimes get to this graph is yes, that’s true, but Obama should
have done more about the debt. But Obama has proposed a multi-trillion dollar deficit
reduction plan. Republicans just refused to pass it. And, to be fair, he refused to sign their
plan, too. So the question then is less about what led to the debt and more about who has the
right plan to get rid of it.


Neil Armstrong 1930-2012


16 Year Old Girl Dies of Cancer After Being Refused Treatment for 3 Weeks Due to Pregnancy

By Robin Marty, Jodi Jacobson
August 17, 2012

A pregnant 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic died from complications of leukemia, according to CNN. The young woman was forced to wait nearly three weeks to begin chemotherapy to treat her disease as hospital officials initially refused to treat her fearing it could terminate her pregnancy. In the end she lost her life and the pregnancy, and may have died because of the delay in her treatment.
Under an amendment to the Dominican Republic's constitution which declares that "life begins at conception," abortion is banned, effectively for any reason. The girl's leukemia was diagnosed when she was just nine weeks pregnant.
Dominican women's health advocates told RH Reality Check this afternoon that while the doctors and the state refused to allow the girl treatment for leukemia, they made her undergo "ultrasounds to show that the baby was healthy and for her to see it moving."

Chemotherapy was begun after the end of the first trimester of pregnancy, at which time the girl began to bleed, yet still the doctors refused to interrupt the pregnancy. Advocates report that she subsequently miscarried the pregnancy and began to hemorrhage; the medical team was unable to contain the bleeding and she died.

The girl's mother had pleaded with both doctors and authorities to give her daughter an abortion so she could begin chemotherapy immediately.

At the time that treatment started, Rosa Hernandez, the girl's mother, said she had been trying to convince doctors and the Dominican government to make an exception so that her daughter's life could be saved.

"My daughter's life is first. I know that (abortion) is a sin and that it goes against the law ... but my daughter's health is first," Hernandez said.

The law forced a gamble on the girls life to "balance" between the alleged medical rights of what was at the time of diagnosis an embryo and the girl in whose body it resided, a gamble that clearly did not pay off for either of them.

As anti-choice laws become even more radical here in the United States, we can't help but look at a story like this and wonder if this could be our future, too. We've become so extreme in our bans that a fact-checker can now say with a straight face that a politician doesn't oppose all abortions because after all, "he has supported an exception for when a mother’s life is at stake."

But what does it mean for a woman's life to be "at stake?"
"There are no exceptions in Personhood USA’s presidential pledge because there are no situations where it becomes necessary to dismember a baby,” said Jennifer Mason, spokesperson for Personhood USA, in a January press release .

"With the passage of federal or state personhood amendments, recognizing the personhood rights of both mother and child, women will still of course have access to life-saving treatments and medical care," Mason continued. "Procedures to treat both mom and baby can potentially lead to happier outcomes for both patients, whereas abortion procedures, which are dangerous as it stands already, intentionally kill a child."

Anti-choice activists continue to push the idea that a woman or teen refusing cancer treatment and dying to try to continue a pregnancy is the most beautiful sacrifice that could be made, irrespective of the desires of the girl or woman in question or the desires of her family.

President Obama on a Spending Binge?

By David K Sutton

Mitt Romney and the rest of the Republican Party love a good story. They don’t have much concern for facts and accuracy, they just like a good story. And a good story to them is one that paints President Obama as dangerous and reckless for America. And nothing could be more reckless than a spending binge with tax payer dollars, right? Well, maybe. But did President Obama really go on a spending binge? Unfortunately reality has a way of intruding on the colorful stories Republicans tell.

Below are the cold hard facts. I don’t present these facts as a way to pat President Obama on the back and say “good job.” I simply present them for what they are: facts.

Fact 1 - The 2009 federal budget year began 4 months before Obama took office. This means its the final budget year from the Bush-era. President Bush (and congress) are responsible for 2009.

Fact 2 - In 2009, federal spending increased from $2.98 trillion to $3.52 trillion. This is an increase of 18%. Again, this is Bush’s final budget year.

Fact 3 – 2010, President Obama’s first budget year, saw a decrease in federal spending, $3.52 trillion to $3.46 trillion, a reduction of nearly 2%.

Fact 4 – 2011, federal spending rose by 4.3% – $3.46 trillion to $3.6 trillion.

Fact 5 - Estimated 2012 spending currently stands at $3.8 trillion, an increase of 5.5% from 2011.

Fact 6 - The estimated spending for 2012 is 7.4% higher than 2009, President Bush’s final budget year. That’s an average annual increase of about 2.6% a year.

President Obama has averaged a 2.6% spending increase in each of his first 3 budget years. I don’t know about you, but that’s not how I define a “spending binge.” A 2.6% per year increase in spending is pretty much in line with historic rates of inflation. When you then consider we are recovering from the worst recession since the Great Depression (a time when government should be spending money to stimulate the economy), it’s shocking that spending has increased so little during Obama’s first term.

Another right-wing lie put to rest.

Goodbye Demo (Paul McCartney)

7 Cavendish Road, London (McCartney's Home), February 1969. "Goodbye" would become a huge it for Apple recording artist, Mary Hopkin. Listening to Paul's demo, it is easy to see why. Written by McCartney, it was credited as a Lennon/McCartney composition. The original version was released as a single on 28th March 1969 and it reached Number 2 in the UK Singles Chart. It was kept off the top of the charts by the Beatles' single "Get Back". "Goodbye" has never been officially released by the Beatles.



Understanding "The Deficit"

By Paul Krugman

In 2011, as in 2010, America was in a technical recovery but continued to suffer from disastrously high unemployment. And through most of 2011, as in 2010, almost all the conversation in Washington was about something else: the allegedly urgent issue of reducing the budget deficit.

This misplaced focus said a lot about our political culture, in particular about how disconnected Congress is from the suffering of ordinary Americans. But it also revealed something else: when people in D.C. talk about deficits and debt, by and large they have no idea what they’re talking about — and the people who talk the most understand the least.

Perhaps most obviously, the economic “experts” on whom much of Congress relies have been repeatedly, utterly wrong about the short-run effects of budget deficits. People who get their economic analysis from the likes of the Heritage Foundation have been waiting ever since President Obama took office for budget deficits to send interest rates soaring. Any day now!

And while they’ve been waiting, those rates have dropped to historical lows. You might think that this would make politicians question their choice of experts — that is, you might think that if you didn’t know anything about our postmodern, fact-free politics.

But Washington isn’t just confused about the short run; it’s also confused about the long run. For while debt can be a problem, the way our politicians and pundits think about debt is all wrong, and exaggerates the problem’s size.

Deficit-worriers portray a future in which we’re impoverished by the need to pay back money we’ve been borrowing. They see America as being like a family that took out too large a mortgage, and will have a hard time making the monthly payments.

This is, however, a really bad analogy in at least two ways.

First, families have to pay back their debt. Governments don’t — all they need to do is ensure that debt grows more slowly than their tax base. The debt from World War II was never repaid; it just became increasingly irrelevant as the U.S. economy grew, and with it the income subject to taxation.

Second — and this is the point almost nobody seems to get — an over-borrowed family owes money to someone else; U.S. debt is, to a large extent, money we owe to ourselves.

This was clearly true of the debt incurred to win World War II. Taxpayers were on the hook for a debt that was significantly bigger, as a percentage of G.D.P., than debt today; but that debt was also owned by taxpayers, such as all the people who bought savings bonds. So the debt didn’t make postwar America poorer. In particular, the debt didn’t prevent the postwar generation from experiencing the biggest rise in incomes and living standards in our nation’s history.

But isn’t this time different? Not as much as you think.

It’s true that foreigners now hold large claims on the United States, including a fair amount of government debt. But every dollar’s worth of foreign claims on America is matched by 89 cents’ worth of U.S. claims on foreigners. And because foreigners tend to put their U.S. investments into safe, low-yield assets, America actually earns more from its assets abroad than it pays to foreign investors. If your image is of a nation that’s already deep in hock to the Chinese, you’ve been misinformed. Nor are we heading rapidly in that direction.

Now, the fact that federal debt isn’t at all like a mortgage on America’s future doesn’t mean that the debt is harmless. Taxes must be levied to pay the interest, and you don’t have to be a right-wing ideologue to concede that taxes impose some cost on the economy, if nothing else by causing a diversion of resources away from productive activities into tax avoidance and evasion. But these costs are a lot less dramatic than the analogy with an overindebted family might suggest.

And that’s why nations with stable, responsible governments — that is, governments that are willing to impose modestly higher taxes when the situation warrants it — have historically been able to live with much higher levels of debt than today’s conventional wisdom would lead you to believe. Britain, in particular, has had debt exceeding 100 percent of G.D.P. for 81 of the last 170 years. When Keynes was writing about the need to spend your way out of a depression, Britain was deeper in debt than any advanced nation today, with the exception of Japan.

Of course, America, with its rabidly antitax conservative movement, may not have a government that is responsible in this sense. But in that case the fault lies not in our debt, but in ourselves.

So yes, debt matters. But right now, other things matter more. We need more, not less, government spending to get us out of our unemployment trap. And the wrongheaded, ill-informed obsession with debt is standing in the way.


Ride, Sally Ride


The Truth About Tax Cuts

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy


Boulder Utah Outdoor Survival School

Kris Foster (Klinger)


Ray Bradbury 1920-2012


To enter out into that silence that was the
city at eight o'clock of a misty evening in November,
to put your feet upon that buckling concrete walk, to
step over grassy seams and make your way, hands in
pockets, through the silences, that was what Mr.
Leonard Mead most dearly loved to do. He would
stand upon the corner of an intersection and peer
down long moonlit avenues of sidewalk in four
directions, deciding which way to go, but it really
made no difference; he was alone in this world of
A.D. 2053, or as good as alone, and with a final
decision made, a path selected, he would stride off,
sending patterns of frosty air before him like the
smoke of a cigar.
Sometimes he would walk for hours and
miles and return only at midnight to his house. And
on his way he would see the cottages and homes with
their dark windows, and it was not unequal to
walking through a graveyard where only the faintest
glimmers of firefly light appeared in flickers behind
the windows. Sudden gray phantoms seemed to
manifest upon inner room walls where a curtain was
still undrawn against the night, or there were
whisperings and murmurs where a window in a tomblike
building was still open.
Mr. Leonard Mead would pause, cock his
head, listen, look, and march on, his feet making no
noise on the lumpy walk. For long ago he had wisely
changed to sneakers when strolling at night, because
the dogs in intermittent squads would parallel his
journey with barkings if he wore hard heels, and
lights might click on and faces appear and an entire
street be startled by the passing of a lone figure,
himself, in the early November evening.
On this particular evening he began his
journey in a westerly direction, toward the hidden
sea. There was a good crystal frost in the air; it cut the
nose and made the lungs blaze like a Christmas tree
inside; you could feel the cold light going on and off,
all the branches filled with invisible snow. He
listened to the faint push of his soft shoes through
autumn leaves with satisfaction, and whistled a cold
quiet whistle between his teeth, occasionally picking
up a leaf as he passed, examining its skeletal pattern
in the infrequent lamplights as he went on, smelling
its rusty smell.
"Hello, in there," he whispered to every
house on every side as he moved. "What's up tonight
on Channel 4, Channel 7, Channel 9? Where are the
cowboys rushing, and do I see the United States
Cavalry over the next hill to the rescue?"
The street was silent and long and empty,
with only his shadow moving like the shadow of a
hawk in midcountry. If he closed his eyes and stood
very still, frozen, he could imagine himself upon the
center of a plain, a wintry, windless Arizona desert
with no house in a thousand miles, and only dry river
beds, the streets, for company.
"What is it now?" he asked the houses,
noticing his wrist watch. "Eight-thirty P.M.? Time for
a dozen assorted murders? A quiz? A revue? A
comedian falling off the stage?"
Was that a murmur of laughter from within a
moon-white house? He hesitated, but went on when
nothing more happened. He stumbled over a
particularly uneven section of sidewalk. The cement
was vanishing under flowers and grass. In ten years
of walking by night or day, for thousands of miles, he
had never met another person walking, not once in all
that time.
He came to a cloverleaf intersection which
stood silent where two main highways crossed the
town. During the day it was a thunderous surge of
cars, the gas stations open, a great insect rustling and
a ceaseless jockeying for position as the scarabbeetles,
a faint incense puttering from their exhausts,
skimmed homeward to the far directions. But now
these highways, too, were like streams in a dry
season, all stone and bed and moon radiance.
He turned back on a side street, circling
around toward his home. He was within a block of his
destination when the lone car turned a corner quite
suddenly and flashed a fierce white cone of light
upon him. He stood entranced, not unlike a night
moth, stunned by the illumination, and then drawn
toward it.
A metallic voice called to him:
"Stand still. Stay where you are! Don't
He halted.
"Put up your hands!"
"But-" he said.
"Your hands up! Or we'll Shoot!"
The police, of course, but what a rare,
incredible thing; in a city of three million, there was
only one police car left, wasn't that correct? Ever
since a year ago, 2052, the election year, the force
had been cut down from three cars to one. Crime was
ebbing; there was no need now for the police, save for
this one lone car wandering and wandering the empty
"Your name?" said the police car in a
metallic whisper. He couldn't see the men in it for the
bright light in his eyes.
"Leonard Mead," he said.
"Speak up!"
"Leonard Mead!"
"Business or profession?"
"I guess you'd call me a writer."
"No profession," said the police car, as if
talking to itself. The light held him fixed, like a
museum specimen, needle thrust through chest.
"You might say that, " said Mr. Mead. He
hadn't written in years. Magazines and books didn't
sell any more. Everything went on in the tomblike
houses at night now, he thought, continuing his fancy.
The tombs, ill-lit by television light, where the people
sat like the dead, the gray or multicolored lights
touching their faces, but never really touching them.
"No profession," said the phonograph voice,
hissing. "What are you doing out?"
"Walking," said Leonard Mead.
"Just walking," he said simply, but his face
felt cold.
"Walking, just walking, walking?"
"Yes, sir."
"Walking where? For what?"
"Walking for air. Walking to see."
"Your address!"
"Eleven South Saint James Street."
"And there is air in your house, you have an
air conditioner, Mr. Mead?"
"And you have a viewing screen in your
house to see with?"
"No?" There was a crackling quiet that in
itself was an accusation.
"Are you married, Mr. Mead?"
"Not married," said the police voice behind
the fiery beam, The moon was high and clear among
the stars and the houses were gray and silent.
"Nobody wanted me," said Leonard Mead
with a smile.
"Don't speak unless you're spoken to!"
Leonard Mead waited in the cold night.
"Just walking, Mr. Mead?"
"But you haven't explained for what
"I explained; for air, and to see, and just to
"Have you done this often?"
"Every night for years."
The police car sat in the center of the street
with its radio throat faintly humming.
"Well, Mr. Mead," it said.
"Is that all?" he asked politely.
"Yes," said the voice. "Here." There was a
sigh, a pop. The back door of the police car sprang
wide. "Get in."
"Wait a minute, I haven't done anything!"
"Get in."
"I protest!"
"Mr. Mead."
He walked like a man suddenly drunk. As he
passed the front window of the car he looked in. As
he had expected, there was no one in the front seat, no
one in the car at all.
"Get in."
He put his hand to the door and peered into
the back seat, which was a little cell, a little black jail
with bars. It smelled of riveted steel. It smelled of
harsh antiseptic; it smelled too clean and hard and
metallic. There was nothing soft there.
"Now if you had a wife to give you an alibi,"
said the iron voice. "But-"
"Where are you taking me?"
The car hesitated, or rather gave a faint
whirring click, as if information, somewhere, was
dropping card by punch-slotted card under electric
eyes. "To the Psychiatric Center for Research on
Regressive Tendencies."
He got in. The door shut with a soft thud.
The police car rolled through the night avenues,
flashing its dim lights ahead.
They passed one house on one street a
moment later, one house in an entire city of houses
that were dark, but this one particular house had all of
its electric lights brightly lit, every window a loud
yellow illumination, square and warm in the cool
"That's my house," said Leonard Mead.
No one answered him.
The car moved down the empty river-bed
streets and off away, leaving the empty streets with
the empty side-walks, and no sound and no motion all
the rest of the chill November night.


The Proposal


Night of the Living Lawn Gnome (Dalila Lutz)

Every facet of production done on an iPhone.


The New Yorker (05/21/12)


Mitt Gets Worse


Spock Meets Hendrix (Cleveland 1970)

Mom Puts Boob in Giant Preschooler’s Mouth

Meet Aram Grumet. He is one month shy of four years old and he breast feeds. To illustrate a feature package on attachment parenting, Time had Aram stand on a chair and suck his mother's teat while gazing into the camera. The resulting photo will soon be on every newsstand in America.

When I saw this cover, I initially assumed Time had taken a page from Newsweek's stock photo fetish porn playbook. Between Time's boob suck and Newsweek's S&M and royal necrophilia, the waiting room at your dentist's office is now a danger zone for twisted Freudian arousal.

But Aram's photo is not simulated. He is a real boy, and his 26-year-old mother Jamie Lynne Grumet really breastfeeds him and his five-year-old brother. Jamie herself breastfed until age six. As I type this, an unwanted image of multigenerational human centipede breastfeeding has entered my mind and will not leave.

by Maureen O'Connor


Dr. Laura Schlesinger - Leviticus 18:22 (Abominations)

In her radio show, Dr Laura Schlesinger said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22, and cannot be condoned under any circumstance.

The following response is an open letter to Dr. Laura, written by a US resident, and posted on the Internet.

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination ... End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God's Laws and how to follow them.

1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighbouring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21 :7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of Menstrual uncleanliness - Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing door for the Lord - Lev.1 :9. The problem is my neighbours. They claim the door is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

5. I have a neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?

6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination, Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this? Are there 'degrees' of abomination?

7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I'm confident you can help.

Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

Your adoring fan.

James M. Kauffman, Ed.D. Professor Emeritus, Dept. Of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education University of Virginia

PS (It would be a damn shame if we couldn't own a Canadian)


The Spectacular ‘Opera on the Lake’ Stages of Bregenz

A Masked Ball by Verdi 99-2000

Since 1946, the Bregenz Festival ‘Opera on the Lake’ in Austria has been home to some of the most incredible outdoor stages ever built. Set on the gorgeous Lake Constance, the 6,800 capacity ‘Seebuhne’ Stage has been the setting for some of the world’s most famous operas. During the 2007 performance of Tosca, the producer and director for the James Bond film Quantum of Solace were so impressed, they filmed a 10-day scene in Bregenz where Bond meets his adversary for the first time during a performance of Tosca.

Aida 09-10

Aida 09-10

Andre Chenier Stage 2011

Carmen 91-92

Die Zauberflote by Mozart 85-86

Fidelio 95-96

La Boheme 01-02

The Flying Dutchman 89-90

Tales of Hoffman 87-88

The Troubador 05-06

Tosca 07-08

West Side Story 03-04


Harper's Index May 2012




The Old Man and the Sea



Freddy Charles

...walk into a bar.


Anniversary 03/26/76


Fuck It!


Lordy Lord.





Harper's Index (March)

Percentage of political ad spending during 2010 elections that would have been prohibited before Citizens United : 72

Percentage increase since 2009 in investment fraud targeting adults over 50 : 100

Age at which a typical person’s financial decision-making ability peaks : 53.3

Amount in BP oil-spill recovery funds spent this winter on a prom for senior citizens in Panama City Beach, Fla. : $166,000

Number of its 1,875 streetlights the city of Highland Park, Mich., has stopped illuminating in the past year to cut costs : 1,387

Amount of Homeland Security funds spent in Michigan last year on Sno-Cone machines : $6,279

Cost of an IED-resistant “Tactical Protector Vehicle” purchased by the Fond du Lac, Wis., Sheriff’s Department : $220,000

Estimated number of parking spaces per car in the United States : 3

Width, in feet, of the narrowest home in New York City : 9.5

Cost of a 50-square-foot storage unit in the basement of the One57 building on West 57th Street in Manhattan : $200,000

Median sale price of a single-family U.S. home sold last year : $166,200

Years by which the average life span of a homeless person is shorter than the overall average : 30

Number of U.S. home sales double-counted by the National Association of Realtors between 2007 and 2010 : 2,970,000

Annual savings the U.S. Mint estimates will result from aborting its efforts to circulate $1 coins : $50,000,000

Factor by which the average white resident of the District of Columbia out-earns the average black resident : 3

Rank of D.C. among urban U.S. school districts with the widest achievement gap between black and white students : 1

Factor by which a black American is more likely than a white one to use Twitter : 2.4

Percentage of the world’s Christians who lived in sub-Saharan Africa in 1912 : 1

Today : 24

Number of Predator drones patrolling the U.S. border with Mexico : 6

Minimum number of persons whose remains the U.S. Air Force dumped in a landfill between 2003 and 2008 : 274

Number of U.S. servicepeople dismissed for pre-existing “personality disorders” between 2002 and 2007 : 22,656

Amount that each dismissal saves the federal government in annual treatment costs : $13,890

Percentage increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the United States in 2010 : 50

Estimated amount of money Hezbollah laundered through U.S. used-car dealers between 2007 and 2011 : $329,552,000

Date on which Saudi Arabia last executed a woman for sorcery : 12/12/11

Number of contestants in an elephant beauty pageant held in Sauraha, Nepal, in December : 5

Percentage increase since 2001 in female participation in target shooting in the U.S. : 46.5

Percentage of Americans who have been arrested by the age of twenty-three : 30

Chances that a U.K. diaper-changing table carries trace amounts of cocaine, according to a 2011 Guardian Media study : 9 in 10

Estimated number of methamphetamine labs busted in Missouri in 2011 : 2,000

Percentage of bypass-machine doctors who admitted to talking on cell phones during heart surgery in a 2010 survey : 55

Amount Miami’s Miller School of Medicine pays female “professional patients” for each student breast or pelvic exam : $40

Amount it pays males for each genital or rectal exam : $30

Chances that an employed American works in the service industry : 6 in 7

Rank of the Mafia among Italy’s largest lending institutions : 1

Rank of Goldman Sachs employees among the largest funding sources for Mitt Romney’s campaign : 1

Obama’s 2008 campaign : 2

Percentage of Americans who believe that the population of the United States exceeds one billion : 28

Who believe that Mitt Romney’s first name is “Mittens” : 2

Figures cited are the latest available as of January 2012. Sources are listed on page 64.
“Harper’s Index” is a registered trademark.





Old Wicked Songs' at the Colony Theatre

Hey, Burbank studio execs, here’s an idea for a reality show set right in your backyard: Who can watch “Old Wicked Songs” at the Colony Theatre without falling in love with John Towey?

If it sounds easy, you haven’t experienced this veteran actor’s endearing portrayal of Professor Josef Mashkan in Jon Marans’ Pulitzer Prize-nominated play.

Plot-wise, “Old Wicked Songs,” first produced in 1996, could be seen as a clunky and manipulative tear-jerker or a delicately layered, well-made drama — or, somehow, both. Stephen Hoffman (Tavis Danz), an American former child prodigy who has lost his zest for performing, arrives in Vienna to study piano with a famous instructor. But the professor, for some professorial reason, has assigned him to study singing with Mashkan first.

Because this is a play, Stephen is so tightly wound that he wears a suit and tie, while the droll, wisecracking Mashkan relaxes in a woolly cardigan. Because it’s a play, Stephen submits to the unwanted lessons, enabling the men to learn a lot from each other and discover mutually startling truths and, ultimately, deep mutual affection. And because this play is set in 1986 in Vienna during the election of Kurt Waldheim, their tumultuous, cross-generational bromance becomes an allegory of Austria’s struggles to move on from, or even forget, its Nazi past.
The grand piano in Mashkan’s rehearsal studio, a sumptuous and gorgeous set by Stephen Gifford, is essentially a third character. Both actors play it beautifully. Marans has woven his knowledge about, and passion for, Robert Schumann’s song cycle “Dichterliebe” — and for music in general — into the story with unusual grace, informing without ever seeming to lecture, and director Stephanie Vlahos guides the remarkably natural performances with a light hand.

Although Stephen is a bit of a pill, even after he loosens his tie, the handsome Danz finds his charm in a sensitive and witty portrayal. And Towey’s nuanced and fully inhabited Mashkan makes a fairly stock character — the teacher who urges the student to unbend, make love, live life to its fullest, etc. — irresistible.

Margaret Gray-Los Angeles Times


Our Nation's Yutes



The Obama Memos (The New Yorker)

The making of a post-post-partisan Presidency.
by Ryan Lizza January 30, 2012
Hundreds of pages of internal White House memos show Obama grappling with the unpleasant choices of government.

On a frigid January evening in 2009, a week before his Inauguration, Barack Obama had dinner at the home of George Will, the Washington Post columnist, who had assembled a number of right-leaning journalists to meet the President-elect. Accepting such an invitation was a gesture on Obama’s part that signalled his desire to project an image of himself as a post-ideological politician, a Chicago Democrat eager to forge alliances with conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill. That week, Obama was still working on an Inaugural Address that would call for “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

Obama sprang coatless from his limousine and headed up the steps of Will’s yellow clapboard house. He was greeted by Will, Michael Barone, David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Lawrence Kudlow, Rich Lowry, and Peggy Noonan. They were Reaganites all, yet some had paid tribute to Obama during the campaign. Lowry, who is the editor of the National Review, called Obama “the only presidential candidate from either party about whom there is a palpable excitement.” Krauthammer, an intellectual and ornery voice on Fox News and in the pages of the Washington Post, had written that Obama would be “a president with the political intelligence of a Bill Clinton harnessed to the steely self-discipline of a Vladimir Putin,” who would “bestride the political stage as largely as did Reagan.” And Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard and a former aide to Dan Quayle, wrote, “I look forward to Obama’s inauguration with a surprising degree of hope and good cheer.”

Over dinner, Obama searched for points of common ground. He noted that he and Kudlow agreed on a business-investment tax cut. “He loves to deal with both sides of the issue,” Kudlow later wrote. “He revels in the back and forth. And he wants to keep the dialogue going with conservatives.” Obama’s view, shared with many people at the time, was that professional pundits were wrong about American politics. It was a myth, he said, that the two political parties were impossibly divided on the big issues confronting America. The gap was surmountable. Compared with some other Western countries, where Communists and far-right parties sit in the same parliament, the gulf between Democrats and Republicans was narrow.

Obama’s homily about conciliation reflected an essential component of his temperament and his view of politics. In his mid-twenties, he won the presidency of the Harvard Law Review because he was the only candidate who was trusted by both the conservative and the liberal blocs on the editorial staff. As a state senator in Springfield, when Obama represented Hyde Park-Kenwood, one of the most liberal districts in Illinois, he kept his distance from the most left-wing senators from Chicago and socialized over games of poker and golf with moderate downstate Democrats and Republicans. In 1998, after helping to pass a campaign-finance bill in the Illinois Senate, he boasted in his community paper, the Hyde Park Herald, that “the process was truly bipartisan from the start.”

A few years later, Obama ran for the U.S. Senate and criticized “the pundits and the prognosticators” who like to divide the country into red states and blue states. He made a speech against the invasion of Iraq but alarmed some in the distinctly left-wing audience by pointing out that he was not a pacifist, and that he opposed only “dumb wars.” At the 2004 Democratic Convention, in Boston, Obama delivered a retooled version of the stump speech about ideological comity—“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America!”—and became a national political star.

In 2006, Obama published a mild polemic, “The Audacity of Hope,” which became a blueprint for his 2008 Presidential campaign. He described politics as a system seized by two extremes. “Depending on your tastes, our condition is the natural result of radical conservatism or perverse liberalism,” he wrote. “Tom DeLay or Nancy Pelosi, big oil or greedy trial lawyers, religious zealots or gay activists, Fox News or the New York Times.” He repeated the theme later, while describing the fights between Bill Clinton and the Newt Gingrich-led House, in the nineteen-nineties: “In the back-and-forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation—a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago—played out on the national stage.” Washington, as he saw it, was self-defeatingly partisan. He believed that “any attempt by Democrats to pursue a more sharply partisan and ideological strategy misapprehends the moment we’re in.”

If there was a single unifying argument that defined Obamaism from his earliest days in politics to his Presidential campaign, it was the idea of post-partisanship. He was proposing himself as a transformative figure, the man who would spring the lock. In an essay published in The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan, a self-proclaimed conservative, reflected on Obama’s heady appeal: “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.”

Obama was not exaggerating the toxic battle that has poisoned the culture of Washington. In the past four decades, the two political parties have become more internally homogeneous and ideologically distant. In “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama wrote longingly about American politics in the mid-twentieth century, when both parties had liberal and conservative wings that allowed centrist coalitions to form. Today, almost all liberals are Democrats and almost all conservatives are Republicans. In Washington, the center has virtually vanished. According to the political scientists Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, who have devised a widely used system to measure the ideology of members of Congress, when Obama took office there was no ideological overlap between the two parties. In the House, the most conservative Democrat, Bobby Bright, of Alabama, was farther to the left than the most liberal Republican, Joseph Cao, of Louisiana. The same was true in the Senate, where the most conservative Democrat, Ben Nelson, of Nebraska, was farther to the left than the most liberal Republican, Olympia Snowe, of Maine. According to Poole and Rosenthal’s data, both the House and the Senate are more polarized today than at any time since the eighteen-nineties.

It would be hard for any President to reverse this decades-long political trend, which began when segregationist Democrats in the South—Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond—left the Party and became Republicans. Congress is polarized largely because Americans live in communities of like-minded people who elect more ideological representatives. Obama’s rhetoric about a nation of common purpose and values no longer fits this country: there really is a red America and a blue America.

Polarization also has affected the two parties differently. The Republican Party has drifted much farther to the right than the Democratic Party has drifted to the left. Jacob Hacker, a professor at Yale, whose 2006 book, “Off Center,” documented this trend, told me, citing Poole and Rosenthal’s data on congressional voting records, that, since 1975, “Senate Republicans moved roughly twice as far to the right as Senate Democrats moved to the left” and “House Republicans moved roughly six times as far to the right as House Democrats moved to the left.” In other words, the story of the past few decades is asymmetric polarization.

Two well-known Washington political analysts, Thomas Mann, of the bipartisan Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, agree. In a forthcoming book about Washington dysfunction, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” they write, “One of our two major parties, the Republicans, has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Three years ago, when Obama explained to George Will and his guests his theory of a centrist Washington, he had some reason to believe it. After all, the pillars of his agenda seemed to enjoy bipartisan support. To some extent, his health-care plan had been designed and employed by a Republican governor, Mitt Romney, of Massachusetts. His policy for addressing climate change, known as “cap and trade,” had its roots in the first Bush White House. The Troubled Asset Relief Program, a bipartisan policy to rescue failing banks, was designed by the second Bush Administration. As for the economy, conservative and liberal economists agreed that fiscal stimulus was the necessary response to a recession; the only question was how much stimulus. Politics in America, Obama confidently told people in Washington just before taking office, is played “between the forty-yard lines.”

As a new President, Obama did not anticipate how effectively his political opponents would cast him as a polarizing figure. Despite the bonhomie at Will’s house, most Republicans viewed him as a wily Chicago politician cosseted by a sympathetic liberal media. The over-all description was a caricature, but there is enough in Obama’s political biography for Republicans to make a case. In fact, his ascent from law professor to President in a decade was marked by a series of political decisions that undercut some of his claims on the subject of partisanship and political reform.

In 1996, during his first run for office, in the Illinois State Senate, Obama defeated his former political mentor Alice Palmer by successfully challenging her nominating petitions and forcing her off the ballot, effectively ending her career. A few years later, Illinois Democrats, after toiling in the minority in the Senate, gerrymandered the state to produce a Democratic majority. While drafting the new political map, Obama helped redraw his own district northward to include some of Chicago’s wealthiest citizens, making the district a powerful financial and political base that he used to win his U.S. Senate seat, a few years later.

Another hard-edged decision helped make him the Democratic Presidential nominee. In early October, 2007, David Axelrod and Obama’s other political consultants wrote the candidate a memo explaining how he could repair his floundering campaign against Hillary Clinton. They advised him to attack her personally, presenting a difficult choice for Obama. He had spent years building a reputation as a reformer who deplored the nasty side of politics, and now, he was told, he had to put that aside. Obama’s strategists wrote that all campaign communications, even the slogan—“Change We Can Believe In”—had to emphasize distinctions with Clinton on character rather than on policy. The slogan “was intended to frame the argument along the character fault line, and this is where we can and must win this fight,” the memo said. “Clinton can’t be trusted or believed when it comes to change,” because “she’s driven by political calculation not conviction, regularly backing away and shifting positions. . . . She embodies trench warfare vs. Republicans, and is consumed with beating them rather than unifying the country and building consensus to get things done. She prides herself on working the system, not changing it.” The “current goal,” the memo continued, was to define Obama as “the only authentic ‘remedy’ to what ails Washington and stands in the way of progress.”

Obama’s message promised voters, in what his aides called “the inspiration,” that “Barack Obama will end the divisive trench warfare that treats politics as a game and will lead Americans to come together to restore our common purpose.” Clinton was too polarizing to get anything done: “It may not be her fault, but Americans have deeply divided feelings about Hillary Clinton, threatening a Democratic victory in 2008 and insuring another four years of the bitter political battles that have plagued Washington for the last two decades and stymied progress.”

Neera Tanden was the policy director for Clinton’s campaign. When Clinton lost the Democratic race, Tanden became the director of domestic policy for Obama’s general-election campaign, and then a senior official working on health care in his Administration. She is now the president of the liberal Center for American Progress, perhaps the most important institution in Democratic politics. “It was a character attack,” Tanden said recently, speaking about the Obama campaign against Clinton. “I went over to Obama, I’m a big supporter of the President, but their campaign was entirely a character attack on Hillary as a liar and untrustworthy. It wasn’t an ‘issue contrast,’ it was entirely personal.” And, of course, it worked.

The fourth momentous decision of Obama’s political career provided the financial boost that made him President. On June 19, 2008, he announced that he would be the first Presidential candidate since 1976 to forgo public funds, which allow candidates to run in the general election while limiting the corrupting influence of fund-raising. This was an awkward and hypocritical decision, given that in 2007 Obama had explicitly promised that he would stay in the system. David Plouffe, his campaign manager, wrote in his memoir, “The Audacity to Win,” that the promise had been a mistake: “We were overly concerned with making sure the reform community and elites like the New York Times editorial board, which care deeply about these issues, would look favorably on our approach.” Obama, Plouffe noted, was “genuinely torn,” but was eventually convinced that victory trumped idealism. Obama’s choice allowed him to raise unlimited amounts of money while John McCain, who remained in the system, was limited to a check from the government for eighty-four million dollars. From September 1st to Election Day, Obama outspent McCain by almost three to one, and, as many Republicans are quick to note, ran more negative ads than any Presidential candidate in modern history.

There are obvious justifications for these four decisions. Alice Palmer had used phony signatures to get on the ballot, and Obama’s challenge was perfectly legal. The Democrats’ gerrymandering of Illinois was routine and no more outrageous than what happens in most other states. Compared with other Presidential primaries, Obama’s attacks against Hillary Clinton were relatively mild. Finally, if McCain could have raised more money outside the public-financing system, he surely would have. Still, Obama’s actual political biography is more partisan and ruthless than the version he has told over the years in countless “post-partisan” speeches and in “The Audacity of Hope.”

At George Will’s house, Obama impressed his companions. He got a big laugh when he teased David Brooks, a Times columnist who is a less orthodox conservative than the others, by asking him, “What are you doing here?” Kudlow said that the tone of the dinner was essentially “We’re going to disagree, but we wish you well.” As the President-elect departed, Rich Lowry grabbed Obama’s hand and said softly, “Sir, I’ll be praying for you.”

The premise of the Obama campaign was unusual. “Change We Can Believe In” wasn’t just about a set of policies; it was more grandiose. Obama promised to transcend forty years of demographic and ideological trends and reshape Washington politics. In the past three years, though, he has learned that the Presidency is an office uniquely ill-suited for enacting sweeping change. Presidents are buffeted and constrained by the currents of political change. They don’t control them.

George C. Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A. & M., who has sparked a quiet revolution in the ways that academics look at Presidential leadership, argues in “The Strategic President” that there are two ways to think about great leaders. The common view is of a leader whom Edwards calls “the director of change,” someone who reshapes public opinion and the political landscape with his charisma and his powers of persuasion. Obama’s many admirers expected him to be just this.

Instead, Obama has turned out to be what Edwards calls “a facilitator of change.” The facilitator is acutely aware of the constraints of public opinion and Congress. He is not foolish enough to believe that one man, even one invested with the powers of the Presidency, can alter the fundamentals of politics. Instead, “facilitators understand the opportunities for change in their environments and fashion strategies and tactics to exploit them.” Directors are more like revolutionaries. Facilitators are more like tacticians. Directors change the system. Facilitators work the system. Obama’s first three years as President are the story of his realization of the limits of his office, his frustration with those constraints, and, ultimately, his education in how to successfully operate within them. A close look at the choices Obama made on domestic policy, based on a review of hundreds of pages of internal White House documents, reveals someone who is canny and tough—but who is not the President his most idealistic supporters thought they had elected.


Mario Cuomo said that Presidents campaign in poetry and govern in prose, and Obama’s shift from Keats to Keynes was abrupt. Before he even entered office, he had to deal with an economic cataclysm. The initial debate was framed by a fifty-seven-page memo to the President-elect, dated December 15, 2008, written by Larry Summers, his incoming director of the National Economic Council. Marked “Sensitive and Confidential,” the document, which has never been made public, presents Obama with the scale of the crisis. “The economic outlook is grim and deteriorating rapidly,” it said. The U.S. economy had lost two million jobs that year; without a government response, it would lose four million more in the next year. Unemployment would rise above nine per cent unless a significant stimulus plan was passed. The estimates were getting worse by the day.

Summers informed Obama that the government was already spending well beyond its means. Yet in the coming months Obama would have to sign, in addition to a stimulus bill, several pieces of legislation left over from the Bush Administration: a hundred-billion-dollar funding bill for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; perhaps three hundred and fifty billion dollars more in funds from Bush’s TARP program, to prop up banks; and a four-hundred-and-ten-billion-dollar spending bill that was stuck in Congress. Obama would need resources to save G.M. and Chrysler, which were close to bankruptcy, and to address the collapsing housing market, which he was told would be hit with five million foreclosures during his first two years in office. Summers cautioned Obama, who had run as a fiscal conservative and attacked his Republican opponent for wanting to raise taxes, that he was about to preside over an explosion of government spending: “This could come as a considerable sticker shock to the American public and the American political system, potentially reducing your ability to pass your agenda and undermining economic confidence at a critical time.”

Obama was told that, regardless of his policies, the deficits would likely be blamed on him in the long run. The forecasts were frightening, and jeopardized his ambitious domestic agenda, which had been based on unrealistic assumptions made during the campaign. “Since January 2007 the medium-term budget deficit has deteriorated by about $250 billion annually,” the memo said. “If your campaign promises were enacted then, based on accurate scoring, the deficit would rise by another $100 billion annually. The consequence would be the largest run-up in the debt since World War II.”

There was an obvious tension between the warning about the extent of the financial crisis, which would require large-scale spending, and the warning about the looming federal budget deficits, which would require fiscal restraint. The tension reflected the competing concerns of two of Obama’s advisers. Christina Romer, the incoming chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, drafted the stimulus material. A Berkeley economist, she was new to government. She believed that she had persuaded Summers to raise the stimulus recommendation above the initial estimate, six hundred billion dollars, to something closer to eight hundred billion dollars, but she was frustrated that she wasn’t allowed to present an even larger option. When she had done so in earlier meetings, the incoming chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, asked her, “What are you smoking?” She was warned that her credibility as an adviser would be damaged if she pushed beyond the consensus recommendation.

Peter Orszag, the incoming budget director, was a relentless advocate of fiscal restraint. He was well known in Washington policy circles as a deficit hawk. Orszag insisted that there were mechanical limits to how much money the government could spend effectively in two years. In the Summers memo, he contributed sections about historic deficits and the need to scale back campaign promises. The Romer-Orszag divide was the start of a rift inside the Administration that continued for the next two years.

Since 2009, some economists have insisted that the stimulus was too small. White House defenders have responded that a larger stimulus would not have moved through Congress. But the Summers memo barely mentioned Congress, noting only that his recommendation of a stimulus above six hundred billion dollars was “an economic judgment that would need to be combined with political judgments about what is feasible.”

He offered the President four illustrative stimulus plans: $550 billion, $665 billion, $810 billion, and $890 billion. Obama was never offered the option of a stimulus package commensurate with the size of the hole in the economy––known by economists as the “output gap”––which was estimated at two trillion dollars during 2009 and 2010. Summers advised the President that a larger stimulus could actually make things worse. “An excessive recovery package could spook markets or the public and be counterproductive,” he wrote, and added that none of his recommendations “returns the unemployment rate to its normal, pre-recession level. To accomplish a more significant reduction in the output gap would require stimulus of well over $1 trillion based on purely mechanical assumptions—which would likely not accomplish the goal because of the impact it would have on markets.”

Paul Krugman, a Times columnist and a Nobel Prize-winning economist who persistently supported a larger stimulus, told me that Summers’s assertion about market fears was a “bang my head on the table” argument. “He’s invoking the invisible bond vigilantes, basically saying that investors would be scared and drive up interest rates. That’s a major economic misjudgment.” Since the beginning of the crisis, the U.S. has borrowed more than five trillion dollars, and the interest rate on the ten-year Treasury bills is under two per cent. The markets that Summers warned Obama about have been calm.

Summers also presumed that the Administration could go back to Congress for more. “It is easier to add down the road to insufficient fiscal stimulus than to subtract from excessive fiscal stimulus,” he wrote. Obama accepted the advice. This view—that Congress would serve as a partner to a popular new President trying to repair the economy—proved to be wrong.

At a meeting in Chicago on December 16th to discuss the memo, Obama did not push for a stimulus larger than what Summers recommended. Instead, he pressed his advisers to include an inspiring “moon shot” initiative, such as building a national “smart grid”—a high-voltage transmission system sometimes known as the “electricity superhighway,” which would make America’s power supply much more efficient and reliable. Obama, still thinking that he could be a director of change, was looking for something bold and iconic—his version of the Hoover Dam—but Romer and others finally had a “frank” conversation with him, explaining that big initiatives for the stimulus were not feasible. They would cost too much, and not do enough good in the short term. The most effective ideas were less sexy, such as sending hundreds of millions of dollars to the dozens of states that were struggling with budget crises of their own.

The stimulus was the first test of Obama’s theory that politics is played in the center of the field—and of the G.O.P.’s ability to define him as a liberal wastrel. By late January, 2009, the bill had cleared the House without a single Republican vote, and was stuck in the Senate, where the reception from the right was also antagonistic. Senator Jim DeMint, of South Carolina, an emerging leader of the grassroots opposition to the President, declared that the stimulus was “the worst piece of economic legislation Congress has considered in a hundred years.” Not since the creation of the income tax, he said, “has the United States seriously entertained a policy so comprehensively hostile to economic freedom, or so arrogantly indifferent to economic reality.” Obama had loaded his bill with tax cuts in order to lure Republicans, but DeMint dismissed them. “Think of it this way,” he said. “If nearly every Democrat in Congress supports a tax cut, it’s not really a tax cut.” DeMint called his alternative to the President’s plan “the American Option.”

On February 1st, a day before Obama was scheduled to meet with congressional leaders from both parties to make his case for the stimulus, his advisers wrote him a memo recommending that he keep the stimulus package from growing: “We believe that it is critical to draw a sharp line not to exceed $900 billion, so that the size of the package does not spiral out of control.” Senators would likely amend the bill to add about forty billion dollars in personal projects—some worthy, some wasteful. At the same time, Obama hadn’t abandoned his dream of a moon-shot project. He had replaced the smart grid with a request for twenty billion dollars in funding for high-speed trains. But including that request was risky. “Critics may argue that such a proposal is not appropriate for a recovery bill because the funding we are proposing is likely to be spent over 10+ years,” the advisers wrote.

To find the extra money—forty billion to satisfy the senators and twenty billion for Obama—the President needed to cut sixty billion dollars from the bill. He was given two options: he could demand that Congress remove a seventy-billion-dollar tax provision that was worthless as a stimulus but was important to the House leadership, or he could cut sixty billion dollars of highly stimulative spending. He decided on the latter.

Obama was then presented with a chart of six stimulus policies—Making Work Pay, a tax credit for jobholders that was a centerpiece of his campaign; education spending; state fiscal relief; funding for the National Institutes of Health; tax-credit bonds; and Social Security and veterans’-benefits payments—with recommendations for cuts in the programs that would save sixty-one billion dollars. Obama’s advisers told him, “A key part of the strategy involved in these savings is that you are putting your priorities—for example, Making Work Pay and education—on the table in order to get this deal done.” His aides had hoped that the Senate would pass the legislation with eighty votes, including more than twenty Republicans. At the bottom of the chart, the President wrote “OK.”

Even as the severity of the economic crisis became clear, Obama and Congress worked together to make the stimulus smaller. The bill, known as the Recovery Act, passed at $787 billion, with three Republican votes in the Senate, including that of Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, who later became a Democrat. It was the Administration’s first recognition that congressional Republicans had little interest in the President’s offer to meet them halfway. It turned out that the ideological divide he had set out to bridge was not just a psychodrama.


Each night, an Obama aide hands the President a binder of documents to review. After his wife goes to bed, at around ten, Obama works in his study, the Treaty Room, on the second floor of the White House residence. President Bush preferred oral briefings; Obama likes his advice in writing. He marks up the decision memos and briefing materials with notes and questions in his neat cursive handwriting. In the morning, each document is returned to his staff secretary. She dates and stamps it—“Back from the OVAL”—and often e-mails an index of the President’s handwritten notes to the relevant senior staff and their assistants. A single Presidential comment might change a legislative strategy, kill the proposal of a well-meaning adviser, or initiate a bureaucratic process to answer a Presidential question.

If the document is a decision memo, its author usually includes options for Obama to check at the end. The formatting is simple, but the decisions are not. As Obama told the Times, early in his first term, Presidents are rarely called on to make the easy choices. “Somebody noted to me that by the time something reaches my desk, that means it’s really hard,” he said. “Because if it were easy, somebody else would have made the decision and somebody else would have solved it.”

On February 5, 2009, just as Obama was negotiating the final details of the stimulus package, Summers and Timothy Geithner, the Treasury Secretary, drafted a memo to the President outlining a plan to save the collapsing banks. TARP, they believed, wouldn’t be enough. Seventy per cent of Americans’ assets were in four banks, three of which were in serious trouble. If the situation worsened, Obama might need to nationalize one or more institutions that were “at the doorstep of failure.” Indeed, “there is a significant chance that Citigroup, Bank of America, and possibly others could ultimately end up in this category.” Nationalization would expose the government to enormous financial risk and political peril. Obama would be forced to take “actions to get the government a dominant ownership position,” and the banks would then “be subject to substantial restructuring and government control including the replacement of long-standing top management and long-standing directors.” It was unclear whether such a takeover was legal. Moreover, there was a “real risk” that seizing control of banks could, in fact, destroy them.

Obama would need congressional support if he pursued nationalization. Geithner and Summers recommended that, if necessary, the F.D.I.C., which provides deposit insurance to millions of Americans, be used to take over the troubled banks. The F.D.I.C. was partly funded by small community banks, which garnered more sympathy than Wall Street firms.

They warned Obama, “We may, by being proactive, be blamed for causing the problems we are seeking to preempt. Further, there is the risk that by attempting a program of this kind, we will pull the ‘band-aid’ off a wound that we lack the capacity to sterilize and thus exacerbate problems.”

The plan was dropped in mid-March after a scandal erupted over lucrative bonuses paid to executives at A.I.G. At a pivotal meeting, according to the notes of someone who participated, Emanuel warned the President of “sticker shock” in Congress, and, he said, “There’s just no appetite for more money.” Obama, whose approval rating was still above sixty per cent, was more confident than his aides in his abilities to change public opinion and persuade Congress he needed the resources. “Well, what if we really explain this very well?” he asked. But the judgment of the political advisers prevailed. In hindsight, the case for nationalization was weak, but even if Obama had wanted to pursue it he couldn’t have. For the second time in as many months, a more aggressive course of action on the economy was thwarted by fears of congressional disapproval.

Obama began to subtly adjust his domestic strategy. Even as he fought the recession, he had decided to pursue health-care reform as well, and during the spring he had to make a series of decisions about the legislation. Its fate in the Senate was largely in the hands of Max Baucus, of Montana, the chairman of the Finance Committee, which had jurisdiction over much of the bill. White House aides noted in a March memo that Baucus was in many ways an Obama Democrat, someone who “prefers to work out legislation on a bipartisan basis.”

There were two ways for the Senate to approach Obama’s health-care plan: the normal process, which required sixty votes to pass the bill, or a shortcut known as “reconciliation,” which required only a simple majority and would bypass a possible filibuster. Baucus and several other key Senate Democrats opposed reconciliation, and Republicans decried its use on such major legislation as a partisan power grab. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, complained that using reconciliation would “make it absolutely clear” that Obama and the Democrats in Congress “intend to carry out all of their plans on a purely partisan basis.” On April 10th, Obama’s aides sent him a memo asking him to decide the issue. The White House could still fashion a bipartisan bill, but it was important to have the fifty-one-vote option as a backup plan, in case they weren’t able to win any Republican support and faced a filibuster. They recommended that he “insist on reconciliation instructions for health care.” Below this language, Obama was offered three options: “Agree,” “Disagree,” “Let’s Discuss.” The President placed a check mark on the line next to “Agree.”

By the spring, Republicans had settled on a simple and effective plan of attack against Obama. His policies, they repeated over and over, “spend too much, tax too much, and borrow too much.” Obama, who made it all the way through his U.S. Senate campaign without ever having a single negative television advertisement aired about him, began to feel the effects of an energized opposition. As his approval rating declined through 2009, he looked for ways to restore his credibility as a moderate. He became intent on responding to critics of government spending and, as White House memos show, he settled into the role of a more transactional and less transformational leader.

In February, he authorized his staff to plan a bipartisan “fiscal summit” that would include politicians, like the conservative Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, and think-tank policymakers, like the liberal Robert Greenstein. “What are the follow-ups, takeaways afterwards?” Obama wrote. They responded that he could publicly ask the attendees for a continued dialogue on the best way to address the fiscal crisis or he could create a fiscal task force that would tackle the issue comprehensively. They warned him that among Democrats who then ran the House and the Senate there was resistance to the task force. Rather than pick a fight with his friends over spending, he decided to start a conversation. The summit came and went, with nothing to show for it.

The President’s notes reflected a tension between his determination to pass his agenda and his hope of maintaining his reformist reputation. At the end of another memo about fiscal discipline after the summit, he asked his staff to seek out ideas from one of the most conservative members in the House. “Have we looked at any of the other GOP recommendations (e.g. Paul Ryan’s) to see if any make sense?” he wrote.

Obama could be unsentimental toward liberal piety. In May, 2009, his advisers informed him that his budget for global health assistance, much of which goes to combat H.I.V., would increase by a hundred and sixty-five million dollars yet would still face “opposition from the very vocal HIV/AIDS activist community.” He wrote back, “How can they complain when we are increasing funding?” At the end, he added, “In announcing this, we should be very complimentary of the Bush Administration.”

He also could be ruthless toward members of his party in Congress. When he was informed in a memo that Representative Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, wanted to write a highway bill that included a hundred and fifteen billion dollars more in spending than Obama had proposed, and which would be funded by a gas-tax increase, Obama wrote “No,” and underlined it. When he was informed that the Census Bureau had spent six hundred million dollars over two years in a failed attempt to use handheld computers for the census, “and is reverting to paper-based data collection,” he wrote, “This is appalling.” Obama was eager to get credit as a penny-pincher. When his aides submitted a detailed plan to improve government performance and reduce waste, he wrote back, “This is good stuff—we need to constantly publicize our successful efforts here.”

In June, 2009, he was told that Congress had whittled down by more than two thirds his ten-billion-dollar proposal to fund childhood nutrition, and he was asked if he would like to fund the initiative out of a thirty-five-billion-dollar pot that had appeared fortuitously during the budget process. The White House planned to use the money for community colleges and early education, and Obama was told that, if he didn’t allocate some of the funds, he couldn’t finance his child-nutrition agenda. His advisers suggested that he could make a point about political reform and offered him a plan to “ask Congress to fund as much of your original request as possible through reductions in agriculture subsidies.” They expected the ploy to fail but argued, “You would be able to say that you had offered a serious plan to fund the full bill, and Congress had fallen short.” Next to this more cynical option, Obama wrote, “Yes.”

The President’s caution, and his concern about business, can be seen in the way he dealt with major interest groups. His policy to limit global warming, cap and trade, threatened the oil companies. Health-care reform threatened insurers. Financial regulatory reform threatened the banks. With great specificity, the concerns of these and other interest groups were brought inside the Oval Office by Obama’s aides. His health-insurance bill was crafted by building support from a delicate alliance of interest groups, and Obama personally guided the effort. On July 1, 2009, his top health-care adviser, Nancy-Ann DeParle, submitted a detailed nine-page policy memo asking whether the White House should consider including medical-malpractice reform in the legislation. Most Democrats opposed the idea, but the American Medical Association was pushing for it. “Obviously, we shouldn’t do anything that weighs down the overall effort,” Obama wrote back, in his characteristically cautious and reasonable style, “but if this helps the AMA stay on board, we should explore it.”

Later in the year, Geithner and Summers outlined the objections of the business lobby to Obama’s plan to close corporate tax loopholes that benefitted multinational companies and to encourage American companies to create more jobs in the U.S. “As you know,” they wrote, “our FY 2010 international tax proposal received a strong negative reaction from the business community—and in particular from large U.S. multinational firms.” They offered him a modified plan that would raise sixteen billion dollars less, and that would “address the business community’s arguably most reasonable concerns.” They noted that “some critics may argue that we are caving to the multinationals,” but pointed out that the plan would still raise revenues from such conglomerates. They leaned on the opinion of Obama’s most trusted political adviser. “David Axelrod thinks it is important that we continue to voice our support for this proposal which was a key commitment you made before coming into office,” they wrote. Next to this, Obama wrote, “Agree.”

But Geithner and Summers warned that if Obama was not willing to personally “defend” the plan he should not send it to Congress. In that case, they offered him an even more defanged alternative, one that would be “more responsive to the business community’s concerns” but would certainly “be criticized by some as caving.” Campaign promises were easy, but, as President, Obama could fight only so many legislative battles. Next to the dramatically scaled-back option, Obama wrote, “Worth discussing.” But in the end it was only worth discussing. Obama didn’t completely capitulate to the multinationals, and he adopted his aides’ modestly clipped package.


Obama’s moderation didn’t sway Republicans, nor did his attention to interest groups or his cuts to beloved liberal programs. Through the rest of 2009, as the anti-government Tea Party movement gathered strength, and conservative voters began to speak of creeping American socialism, Obama’s aides quarrelled over how the President should respond. Romer wanted him to press the Keynesian case for his policies—to defend the proposition of increased government spending to fight the recession. Orszag argued that he needed more support from Washington’s deficit hawks, and urged him to create a deficit commission, partly because “it can provide fiscal credibility during a period in which it is unlikely we would succeed in enacting legislation.”

It presented Obama with a common Presidential dilemma: Should he use the White House bully pulpit to change minds or should he accept popular opinion? He chose the latter. In his speeches, he began saying, “Americans are making hard choices in their budgets. We’ve got to tighten our belts in Washington, as well.” Romer fought to get such lines removed from his speeches, arguing that it was “exactly the wrong policy.” She thought the President should emphasize that the government would seek to use taxpayer money wisely, and leave it at that. Instead, he seemed to be accepting the Republican case against stimulus and for austerity. She thought he was losing faith in Keynesianism itself.

Obama was learning the same lesson of many previous occupants of the Oval Office: he didn’t have the power that one might think he had. Harry Truman, one in a long line of Commanders-in-Chief frustrated by the limits of the office, once complained that the President “has to take all sorts of abuse from liars and demagogues. . . . The people can never understand why the President does not use his supposedly great power to make ’em behave. Well, all the President is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway.”

When it came time for Obama to write his fiscal 2011 budget, which was his next big opportunity to help the economy, he began to chip away at some dramatic campaign commitments. For instance, in 2008 he had promised a bold space program. “As President,” he had said, “I will establish a robust and balanced civilian space program” that “not only will inspire the world with both human and robotic space exploration but also will again lead in confronting the challenges we face here on Earth, including global climate change, energy independence, and aeronautics research.” In November, 2009, his advisers, in a memo, delivered some bad news: “The 10-year deficit has deteriorated by roughly $6 trillion.” The next sentence was in boldface type and underlined: “Especially in light of our new fiscal context, it is not possible to achieve the inspiring space program goals discussed during the campaign.”

Obama was told that he should cancel NASA’s Bush-era Constellation program, along with its support projects, like the Ares launch vehicles, which were designed to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. The program was behind schedule, over budget, and “unachievable.” He agreed to end it. During the stimulus debate, Obama’s metaphorical moon-shot idea—the smart grid—was struck down as unworkable. Now the Administration’s actual moon-shot program was dead, too.

As he worked on his budget, Obama scoured his briefing materials for ways to cut spending. Next to a discussion of continuing “spending levels associated with the Recovery Act,” he wrote, “Not possible.” He even questioned funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is generally considered politically untouchable. It was going to receive a 7.2-per-cent increase, the largest two-year percentage increase in the department’s budget in more than thirty years. Obama was informed that it would “underscore the Administration’s commitment to our veterans. Specifically, it will do so by continuing to improve care for our wounded warriors, expand programs to reduce and prevent the incidence of homelessness among veterans.” Obama wrote, “Given what we did last year, does the increase need to be this high?”

Obama knew that his most ardent supporters would attack the budget. He planned to increase Pentagon funding while decreasing some popular domestic programs. He was told that the proposal presented him with “a broad vulnerability.” For example, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps many poor people, especially in the Northeast, was to be cut in half. “Not good,” Obama wrote. The Small Business Administration “should do more with what it has,” he wrote. Poorly performing job-training centers “have to be replaced w/ something that does work.” He underlined “does.”

His aides also recommended that he give back to the government two hundred and four million dollars left over from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, the campaign-financing program that, in 2008, Obama had decided not to use. Obama’s controversial decision now had a chance to save the government money, but there was a hitch. The program is financed by taxpayers who ask the I.R.S. to send three dollars from their annual taxes to the program. “Rescinding the dollars in the fund may be seen as overriding taxpayer choice,” he was told, “and also as an attack on public financing that would decrease the funds available for the 2012 election.” He wrote, “Need to be careful here.”

One Cabinet official made it clear that she did not share the President’s growing commitment to coupon-clipping: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She rejected the White House’s budget for her department, and wrote the President a six-page letter detailing her complaints. Some in the White House saw the long letter as a weapon, something that could be leaked if Clinton didn’t get her way. “At the proposed funding levels,” Clinton wrote, “we will not have the capacity to deliver either the full level of civilian staffing or the foreign assistance programs that underlie the civilian-military strategy you outlined for Afghanistan; nor the transition from U.S. Military to civilian programming in Iraq; nor the expanded assistance that is central to our Pakistan strategy.” She went on, “I want to emphasize that I fully understand the economic realities within which this budget is being constructed, and I share your commitment to fiscal responsibility. But I am deeply concerned about these funding levels.”

The letter contained indications of a real relationship between the former rivals. “You and I often speak about the need to restore the capacity of civilian agencies,” Clinton noted. But the general tone was stern and businesslike. It ended with an urgent plea for Obama to intervene on her behalf. “There is little room for progress unless you provide guidance that you are open to an increase in overall funding levels,” she wrote. Obama did indeed fight for some additional money for Clinton.

A year into Obama’s Presidency, a Gallup poll showed how starkly he had failed at reducing partisanship. Obama was the most polarizing first-year President in history—that is, the difference between Democratic approval of him and Republican disapproval was the highest ever recorded. The previous record-holder was Bill Clinton. Obama also faced an electorate with a historically low level of trust in government. Since the Vietnam War, faith in Washington has plummeted, and it always declines when the economy falters. On the eve of Obama’s election, trust was at a record low. The public had turned sharply away from government at a moment when he was asking it to do more.

Toward the end of 2009, the President continued to struggle with the hard compromises he would have to make in writing his budget and planning initiatives for the new year. David Axelrod, Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, and Mona Sutphen, Obama’s deputy chief of staff, sent him a memo about how he could find his way out of his slump. They wrote:

The initial glow of the Obama Administration has yielded to the realization that the nation’s problems are stubborn and won’t be solved painlessly or overnight. Even as a majority of Americans retain a high regard for you, there has been a resurgence of jaundice about Washington’s ability to deal with these problems responsibly, and a renewed anger over the continued dominance of hyper-partisanship and special interests.
At the same time, Americans still yearn for a “new era of responsibility.” But an expensive stimulus plan, bank and auto bailouts, juxtaposed with their own daily struggles, have eroded their confidence that such an era is at hand. Despite this skepticism, the American people are receptive to a message that emphasizes that you have taken the tough steps that needed to be taken to pull the nation back from the brink.

The State of the Union message would remind voters of the inspirational Obama of the 2008 campaign, and also make clear that he was listening to the public’s concerns about the government. After a year of intense policymaking and legislating, Obama’s political advisers were attempting to reassert authority over the economic team. The recommendations were heavy on public relations and attempted to reposition Obama to appear less hostile to the concerns of the anti-government right. “Democratic Presidents rarely address small businesses in their message,” they advised Obama, “but you could use the opportunity to discuss what small businesses mean for the freedom to be your own boss, to pursue your own ideas and for our spirit of innovation.”

Axelrod and other Obama political advisers saw anti-Keynesian rhetoric as a political necessity. They believed it was better to channel the anti-government winds than to fight them. As much as it enraged Romer and outside economists, the White House was on to something. A President’s ability to change public opinion through rhetoric is extremely limited. George Edwards, after studying the successes of Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan, concluded that their communications skills contributed almost nothing to their legislative victories. According to his study, “Presidents cannot reliably persuade the public to support their policies” and “are unlikely to change public opinion.”

Obama’s State of the Union speech, his aides said, “was an opportune moment to pivot to themes of restraining government spending.” They advised him to consider “freezing or cutting the discretionary budget,” instituting a senior-level government pay freeze, and cancelling some federal programs. They even noted that his government-reform efforts were “the most dramatic since Reagan’s conservative downsizing.”

Finally, they warned that the process of securing the President’s legislative agenda had damaged his distinctive brand. “Perhaps more than in any other area,” they wrote, “it is essential that we use the SOTU to reclaim the high ground on challenging the status quo in Washington.” They feared that Obama was being damaged by his association with the deal-making in Congress. “The speech presents a moment when you can begin to distance the Administration from Congress on issues of special interest capture and transparency.”

In the end, Obama’s entire economic team went along with the new push for austerity, at least symbolically. They recommended that Obama endorse the idea of a bipartisan fiscal commission, accepting a proposal that the President had rejected months earlier—and he agreed. Ten days after the Axelrod memo, on December 20th, Summers, Orszag, Geithner, and even Romer advised the President on how to tackle the deficit in 2010. They told him that he needed to cut eighty-five billion dollars in spending in order to submit a fiscally credible budget to Congress.

They ticked off a list of ideas. Instead of a one-year non-defense-spending freeze, as they had previously suggested, they recommended a three-year freeze. The freeze was controversial: liberals would call it mad to restrain federal spending during a recession; Republicans would call it trivial. But it would save twenty billion dollars. “Your economic team believes that it is worth doing this,” his aides wrote in another memo, “both to reduce the deficit and indicate that the Administration is serious about fiscal discipline.” Obama drew a check mark next to the recommendation.

In the December 20th memo, they resorted to gimmickry. In his first budget, Obama had prided himself on “honest budgeting,” declining to employ the fanciful assumptions that the previous Administration had used to hide the costs of government. On disaster relief, for example, he had estimated that the government would need twenty billion dollars a year, a figure based on the statistical likelihood of major disasters requiring federal aid. Now Obama’s aides reminded him that Congress had ignored his “ ‘honest budgeting’ approach,” and perhaps they should, too. They proposed “$5 billion per year for disaster costs.” Obama drew another check mark. The White House could also save billions by fiddling with the way it presented savings from Obama’s health-care-reform bill. Check.

Finally, Obama’s economic team recommended a new five-per-cent tax—what it called a “bubble rate”—on people making more than two hundred and fifty thousand dollars per year. It would bring in eleven billion dollars in 2015. Here, Obama made another check mark, but he wrote, “Best discuss.” When his aides returned with a deeper analysis, it was clear that their tax idea would violate Obama’s campaign pledge against raising taxes for the middle class. Obama rejected the tax hike.

At about the same time, in January, 2010, just as the Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown was rising in the polls in the race to replace the late Senator Edward Kennedy, Orszag and Ezekiel Emanuel, the chief of staff’s brother and a health-care adviser, recommended that the government pay federal employees to participate in a pilot program to study the most effective treatments for patients.

“Regardless of the merit and relatively low cost of the idea, Jim and Ax think it is not politically viable,” Lisa Brown, Obama’s staff secretary, wrote in a cover letter to the President, referring to Axelrod and to Jim Messina, the deputy chief of staff. She noted that the payments might look like a “luxury” for bureaucrats. “Pfeiffer also thinks it could easily be caricatured by the right-wing press,” she added. Final passage of Obama’s health-care plan was in sight. It was not the time to hand Fox News a new anti-Obama story line. The President wrote at the end of the memo, almost apologetically, “Unfortunately I think the political guys are right about how it would be characterized. Let’s go back at it in future years, when the temperature on health care and the economy has gone down.” Nine days later, Scott Brown won his election, making him the forty-first Republican in the Senate, and handing Obama’s opposition the ability to filibuster health-care reform. At the end of the month, Obama released his budget, with its cuts and spending freeze. Republicans were not impressed. “To me it’s totally meaningless,” Senator James Inhofe, of Oklahoma, told The Hill, discussing the spending freeze. “But it’s obvious why he’s doing it. The idea is smart: He’s going to try to make people think he’s concerned about spending, which he isn’t.”


Obama’s aides include about ten letters from the public in his binder of briefing materials that he reads upstairs in the White House residence. The letters offer a powerful antidote to the policy minutiae and the political strategy that consume the rest of each day.

On February 2, 2010, a woman from Virginia named Ginger wrote to the President. She generally voted Republican, but in 2008 she had supported Obama. With the help of many people like Ginger—and several million dollars’ worth of attack ads against McCain—Obama won the state by six points. On February 5th, Obama read her letter.

“Dear President Obama,” she wrote. “Last evening on the news, we learned that you have decided to cut the Ares project which is part of the next generation space transport. My husband works on this project.

“How can our country support and fight two wars and cut funding for research which creates jobs? I was against the wars and still am. We will not win them. You were against them too before you became President. The wars have made our country weak. Now we will have an even bigger deficit and no future technology avenues to help pay it off.

“I voted for you. I supported you. But I am very disappointed in you. You are not the President I thought you were going to be. I thought you were going to be a leader such as Martin Luther King or JFK.”

Obama scribbled a note to his staff: “Reply—can I get a sense of how Ares fit in with our long term NASA strategy to effectively respond.” A few days later, with that information in hand, Obama wrote to an aide, “Draft a short letter for Ginger, answering her primary concern—her husband’s career—for me to send.”

Ginger’s letter captured the fraught choices that have plagued Obama’s past three years. Voters like her—a shrinking share of the electorate that swings between the two parties—are often receptive to themes of bipartisanship, and they helped provide Obama with his margin of victory. And yet, if he had put bipartisanship ahead of legislative victories, his Presidency arguably would have failed to get any legislation passed. A month after his exchange with Ginger, Obama’s health-care bill lay dormant, blocked by a Senate filibuster. Obama resurrected it using reconciliation, the parliamentary provision he had demanded Congress to adopt a year earlier, as a fail-safe measure. The bill passed, with the support of two hundred and nineteen Democrats in the House and fifty-six Democrats in the Senate. The most significant Democratic achievement since the nineteen-sixties garnered not a single Republican vote. Four months later, Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street-reform bill. Only three Republican senators voted for it. In the past year, every Republican leader in Congress and on the Presidential-campaign trail has promised to repeal both laws if given the chance.

On May 5, 2010, Orszag, Summers, and Phil Schiliro, Obama’s director of legislative affairs, informed the President that he needed to settle the dispute over whether the centerpiece of his economic plan was jobs or the deficit. His aides laid out the history of their indecision, using an automobile as a metaphor. “This year, the Administration has strongly pushed two distinct messages on fiscal policy,” they wrote. The first was “providing more ‘gas’ ” to help the recovery; the second was demonstrating fiscal discipline by cutting spending, or “stepping on the ‘brake.’ ”

They agreed that the best policy should be gas now, brake later. But, with Democrats in Congress facing a midterm election in which federal spending was becoming a prominent issue, his advisers pushed for fiscal restraint. In fact, they argued that exploiting public opinion in favor of deficit reduction was the best way to gain support for stimulus. “Given the growing perception that Washington is out of control on fiscal issues,” they wrote, “focusing more of our communications message on brake-related issues might increase our ability to achieve the ‘gas now, brake later’ strategy. In other words, we may be more likely to succeed in enacting job creation measures this year if we highlight and propose additional deficit reduction measures for the medium term.”

Obama had been bold on health care. But, as Summers had noted in a previous memo, there wasn’t enough “bandwidth” to pass many other priorities. Eighteen months into his Presidency, his economic advisers offered him essentially three paths: an ambitious new jobs package that he could personally advocate as an “emergency expenditure”; “a fiscally significant (several hundred billion dollars over ten years) deficit reduction package”; and an array of “new policies that have greater symbolic than deficit-reducing impact.” The ambitious options were seen as impractical. Congress was unwilling to pass “nearly as much fiscal stimulus” as Obama wanted. A deficit-reduction package would be “a very difficult undertaking that would entail resurrecting ideas you rejected in the budget process” and could “engender substantial political opposition, set up members of Congress for hard votes, and, possibly, produce a legislative defeat for the Administration.” Obama decided against both of the more ambitious ideas. He was left with “smaller, more symbolic efforts” that “are less politically risky,” like reforming federal travel and cutting military spending on congressional junkets. “The challenge here is to break through message-wise and convince the media, financial markets, and the public at large that these measures signify real efforts to restrain spending,” Obama’s economic team wrote.

They gave him one other crucial piece of advice. The tax cuts passed by George Bush would soon expire. Obama favored extending Bush’s middle-class cuts and ending the upper-income cuts. Tackling the deficit would be impossible otherwise. But his economic team warned that, given the political climate, the extension of all the Bush tax cuts “could gain serious traction.” Not to worry, his political team insisted. Pelosi would never allow that to occur. We’re “confident that the Speaker would not agree to this becoming law,” Obama was assured.

But the President had no way to get much more out of Congress in 2010—gas, brakes, or tax cuts. That summer, he won a modest small-business bill and some legislation to save the jobs of teachers, but the “big bang” phase of his Presidency turned into a whimper as the midterm elections began to dominate the Administration’s attention that summer and fall. When Republicans took over the House and expanded their ranks in the Senate, Obama lost much of his ability to legislate. In 2011, he proposed a stimulus measure called the American Jobs Act and gave a speech to Congress in which he demanded twenty times that legislators pass his jobs bill. But the plan didn’t go anywhere. His successes came through foreign-policy choices that largely circumvented Congress: the successful intervention in Libya; the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan; the killing of Osama bin Laden. When Congress changed hands in 2010, the curtain had come down on Obama’s domestic agenda.

Crisis has often been the wellspring of political transformation in America. Obama’s situation in 2009—a discredited opposition party and an economic meltdown—seemed remarkably similar to the circumstances that Franklin Roosevelt faced after he defeated Herbert Hoover, in 1932, and fashioned the modern welfare state; or when Lyndon Johnson took power after the trauma of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, in 1963, and pushed through the Great Society. But neither 9/11 nor the great recession transformed American politics in a way that overcame structural polarization.

Despite the Republican takeover of the House, Obama’s third year in office started with a flicker of bipartisanship. Obama, notwithstanding the dire warning of his team, accepted a deal to temporarily extend all the Bush tax cuts in exchange for some fiscal stimulus for the economy. But the Congress sworn into power in 2011 proved to be the most conservative in modern history. Obama was repeatedly rebuffed as he attempted to achieve a “grand bargain” on taxes and spending. In July, John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House, came close to an agreement with Obama on a four-trillion-dollar plan to resolve the long-term deficit, but conservative colleagues rebelled, and Boehner withdrew.

Predictions that Obama would usher in a new era of post-partisan consensus politics now seem not just naïve but delusional. At this political juncture, there appears to be only one real model of effective governance in Washington: partisan dominance, in which a President with large majorities in Congress can push through an ambitious agenda. Despite Obama’s hesitance and his appeals to Republicans, this is the model that the President ended up relying upon during his first two years in office. He had hoped to use a model of consensus politics in which factions in the middle form an alliance against the two extremes. But he found few players in the center of the field: most Republicans and Democrats were on their own ten-yard lines. (The Tea Party, meanwhile, was tearing down the goal posts and carrying them away.) This situation is not unprecedented. During much less polarized periods, when it was easier to build centrist coalitions, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson suffered similar fates. “When Johnson lost 48 Democratic House seats in the 1966 election, he found himself, despite his alleged wizardry, in the same condition of stalemate that had thwarted Kennedy and, indeed, every Democratic President since 1938,” Arthur Schlesinger noted in his 1978 biography of Robert Kennedy. “In the end, arithmetic is decisive.”

Most of Obama’s conservative dinner companions from his evening at George Will’s home now describe him and his Administration in the most caricatured terms. Will declared Obama a “floundering naïf” and someone advancing “Lenin-Socialism.” Charles Krauthammer called Obama “sanctimonious, demagogic, self-righteous, and arrogant.” Lawrence Kudlow described him as presiding over a government of “crony capitalism at its worst.” Michael Barone called it “Gangster Government.” Rich Lowry said that Obama is “the whiniest president ever.” Peggy Noonan, correcting some interpretations of the President by her fellow-conservatives, wrote, “He is not a devil, an alien, a socialist. He is a loser.”

Many of Obama’s liberal allies have been disillusioned, too. When Steve Jobs last met the President, in February, 2011, he was most annoyed by Obama’s pessimism—he seemed to dismiss every idea Jobs proffered. “The president is very smart,” Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson. “But he kept explaining to us reasons why things can’t get done. It infuriates me.”

Yet our political system was designed to be infuriating. As George Edwards notes in his study of Presidents as facilitators, the American system “is too complicated, power too decentralized, and interests too diverse for one person, no matter how extraordinary, to dominate.” Obama, like many Presidents, came to office talking like a director. But he ended up governing like a facilitator, which is what the most successful Presidents have always done. Even Lincoln famously admitted, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events controlled me.”

The White House staff memos show Obama scaling back his proposals in the face of the business lobby, designing a health-care bill to attract support from doctors, rejecting schemes from his aides that could be caricatured by the right, and in dozens of other ways making the unpleasant choices of governing in a system defined by its constraints.

Obama made important mistakes in the first half of his term. He underestimated the severity of the recession and therefore the scale of the response it required, and he clung too long to his vision of post-partisanship, even in the face of a radicalized opposition whose stated goal was his defeat. The memos show a cautious President, someone concerned with his image. When, in 2009, he was presented with the windfall pot of thirty-five billion dollars that he could spend on one of his campaign priorities or use for deficit reduction, Obama wrote, “I would opt for deficit reduction, but it doesn’t sound like we would get any credit for it.” At other moments, the memos show a President intensely focussed on trying to restrain the government Leviathan he inherited, despite an opposition that doesn’t trust his intentions. When his aides submit a plan to save money on administrative efficiencies, Obama writes back, with some resignation, “This is good—but we should be careful not to overhype this given D.C. cynicism.” He is frustrated with the irrational side of Washington, but he also leans on the wisdom of his political advisers when they make a strong case that a good policy is bad politics. The private Obama is close to what many people suspect: a President trying to pass his agenda while remaining popular enough to win reëlection.

Obama didn’t remake Washington. But his first two years stand as one of the most successful legislative periods in modern history. Among other achievements, he has saved the economy from depression, passed universal health care, and reformed Wall Street. Along the way, Obama may have changed his mind about his 2008 critique of Hillary Clinton. “Working the system, not changing it” and being “consumed with beating” Republicans “rather than unifying the country and building consensus to get things done” do not seem like such bad strategies for success after all. ♦