Thursday, November 06, 2008

National Community Organizer-in-Chief

November 6, 2008, 7:30 a.m.

OK, Now What?

Why I Did, and Will, Support President Obama

My enthusiasm about President-Elect Obama's victory is as great as anyone's -- with the possible exception of those African-Americans who are my age or older. My seven years in Austin, Houston, and traveling throughout the deep south during the 1950s were far from their lifetimes of oppression, but the environment and what I witnessed of the ravages of segregation and discrimination were enough to open this white Iowa boy's eyes and heart, and provide a little more meaning and force to my singing of "we shall overcome some day" during the 1960s. We haven't yet reached Dr. Martin Luther King's mountaintop, but at least it's now a lot closer than it's ever been.

Besides, law professors tend to favor as presidents former law review editors -- even if what they edited was the Harvard Law Review. I just hadn't thought there were enough law professors to get Senator Obama elected, but delighted to find out just how wrong I was.

Finally, I noted yesterday ("Global Election Results: 'The Whole World is Watching,'" November 5) the importance of our elections to the citizens throughout the world who will be affected by it, and the beginning of end of the harm that the last administration's rhetoric and actions have done to our standing in the world. (See, e.g., The Kenya Times' stories; and see bottom of blog entry for a very moving first-hand report.)

Every world citizen's best interests are served by hoping for President Obama's success and doing what they can to bring it about -- but that is multiples more true for those of us in this country who are in the best position to be supportive and helpful.

Having said all of the above, however, there is a difference between "supportive and helpful" and "unthinking cheerleading."

The Citizen's Duty to Criticize Government

The case of New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), established the standard that public officials must meet in suing for defamation (that the defendant either knew his or her statement was false, or exhibited reckless disregard in ascertaining its truth). Justice Brennan, writing for the Supreme Court, noted the protection given public officials when they are sued for defamation (for example, for something said by a U.S. senator during a debate in the Senate). He continued, "Analogous considerations support the privilege for the citizen-critic of government. It is as much his duty to criticize as it is the official's duty to administer . . .."

Note that Justice Brennan is not just saying that we American citizens have a privilege to criticize government -- though of course we do -- he says that those who live in a country that was designed and is devoted to be governed by its citizens ("self-governing") have a duty to criticize their government.

Hopefully, this will be what we call "constructive criticism." Hopefully the critics will have learned somewhere along their educational path the difference between data, facts and the scientific method on the one hand, and opinion, inference, rumor, and ideology on the other. Hopefully they know that when obscenities or mean-spirited misrepresentations are hurled at officials they only reveal what is going on inside the speaker's head, rather than anything about the world outside.

That New York Times v. Sullivan protects some pretty awful political speech from defamation suits doesn't make it commendable citizenship.

President Obama as National Community Organizer-in-Chief

Don't get me wrong. My clear inclination is to believe that a President Obama will be speaking and acting out of a love of country, a superior intelligence, and desire to do what he believes to be in the best national interest. I believe that President Obama at his worst will be better than President George W. Bush at his best.

But my dream, my hope, is that he will be even better than that.

Based on the very first conversation I had with him, plus a number of his speeches since, my hope is that he will use us -- the 3.2 million contributors, the millions more of supporters whose email addresses he has, and such of the 64+ million who voted for him whom he can contact or otherwise motivate -- as the "community" for whom he is the "national community organizer." As the saying has it, "When the people lead their leaders will follow." Or, as President Roosevelt is said to have urged public interest advocates, "I totally agree with you; now you go out there and make me do it."

Part of what makes Washington "broken" (as even Senator John McCain would say), part of the reason Wall Street and K Street seem to have their way with the federal government, is that we -- you and I -- aren't "at the table" with the lobbyists and special interests to whom our local representatives and senators, as well as the White House, are too often beholden.

Without Us There is an Improbability of "Change"

Without a president who will encourage and enable our meaningful and effective participation it's not clear to me how we get from here to there, how "change" can be possible. "Reaching across the aisle," reaching for compromise, sounds good -- and is certainly better than Democrats and Republicans, or the legislative and executive branches, throwing rotten eggs at each other. But if the senator doing the reaching is heavily funded by, say, Big Pharma, and the hand he grabs is that of another senator heavily funded by Big Pharma, the result may improve legislative harmony but is unlikely to improve our access to health care.

So long as Big Pharma and Big Oil are drafting the legislation, and making the campaign contributions necessary to get it passed, on economic issues the next four years are going to look an awful lot like the last eight years.

As Common Cause finally learned after 30 years of trying, campaign finance reform legislation has to be passed by incumbents. And incumbents have little enthusiasm for changing a system that virtually guarantees the re-election of those incumbents who want to be re-elected. I see no indication that incumbents attitudes about this are going to change -- especially after witnessing the success of a presidential candidate who reversed course, rejected public financing, and sailed on to a $600 million victory.

So the only hope I see for meaningful change in the way Washington does business is for "the people to lead" -- hopefully with the encouragement, rather than the resistance, of the president who could be our "national community organizer."

When "Centrist" Becomes "Continuity" -- and Early Appointments

President Obama never promised to be, and has given us no indication of being, a populist or progressive. He offered little to no rhetoric of the Robert Kennedy variety regarding the needs of the poor (as distinguished from "the middle class"). He reversed his position on trade, and immunity for the telephone companies than illegally wiretapped their own American customers. He voted for the first $700 billion flawed bailout of Wall Street -- the source of much of his financial support. His healthcare proposal bears little similarity to the "universal, single-payer" systems of most industrialized nations; it retains the high administrative costs, CEO compensation, and corporate profits of the insurance and healthcare "industry."

I appreciate that there is a case to be made for continuity and against "change."

But to the extent you personally favor the notion of change one thing to keep an eye on are the early appointments. To the extent Bush's cabinet officers are kept on (Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been mentioned in that connection along with keeping General General David Petraeus in place), or former Clinton officials are brought back (former Clinton Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers has been mentioned for Treasury Secretary), that tends to suggest relatively more emphasis on continuity and less on change.

"Can't Tell the Players Without a Program": Clues From the Transition Team

Here are some names from the Washington Post of transition team members at this point to help you follow news from the personnel front as it unfolds (as many-to-most of them will presumably find their way into positions in the Administration after January 20).

Obama spent most of the day ensconced in a downtown office building where he held discussions with Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.; John D. Podesta, who was President Bill Clinton's chief of staff; Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.); and senior campaign advisers. . . .

Leading the Obama-Biden Transition Project are Podesta; Valerie Jarrett, a close friend of Obama's; and Pete Rouse, Obama's former Senate chief of staff. . . . Obama . . . is expected to name his chief of staff, most likely Emanuel, this week. . . .

After weeks of speculation about who might fill the Treasury post, financial industry and Obama sources said the list includes Timothy F. Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and Lawrence H. Summers, who was Treasury secretary at the end of the Clinton administration and has been a close adviser to Obama on the economy.

Geithner has been deeply involved in the government's response to the nation's economic crisis since it began in September. While he has extensive knowledge of the financial system, he is not as well known to Obama as is Summers.

Obama could also draw from his core economic team, which includes former Treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin, former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker, and Laura D'Andrea Tyson, who chaired Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers. . . .

Others suggested the possibility of a less conventional pick, perhaps a Wall Street name such as Jamie Dimon, chief executive of J.P. Morgan Chase. . . .

Beyond the Podesta-led troika, a separate team, headed by Mark Gitenstein and Ted Kaufman, will guide the transition process for Biden.

A senior transition staff will oversee day-to-day activities: Chris Lu, Obama's legislative director, will serve as executive director. Campaign communications director Dan Pfeiffer will move into the same role for the transition. Stephanie Cutter, Michelle Obama's chief of staff, will serve as chief spokesperson. Obama friend and think tank executive Cassandra Q. Butts will serve as general counsel, a job that will include vetting job candidates for ethical conflicts. Campaign chief of staff Jim Messina will become personnel director. Phil Schiliro, a Capitol Hill veteran, will run congressional relations.

The transition team advisory committee includes numerous Clinton veterans and allies of Obama and Biden. One member key to the economic planning is Michael Froman, a former chief of staff to Rubin at the Treasury Department during the Clinton years and an Obama classmate at Harvard Law School.
Anne E. Kornblut and David Cho, "Obama Team Shifts to Transition Mode; Bush Extends Invitation, Calls Historic Election 'Uplifting,'" Washington Post, November 6, 2008, p. A1.

And see, Jim McElhatton, "Big-time Obama fundraisers to aid transition," Washington Times, November 6, 2008 (e.g., "Donald Gips, a former top aide to Vice President Al Gore who helped the Obama campaign raise at least $500,000, will serve on an advisory board overseeing the Obama transition" -- along with the names of many more, including Valerie Jarrett).


Here is a letter from someone I do not know, shared with me by a friend, that reveals a good deal of what the election of President Obama is doing to improve our image abroad:

My dear friends,

Today I have had to travel from the island of Borneo...from SABAH and the town of Kota Kinabalu. Then to Kualam Lumpur where I had a 5 hour lay over and finally arriving very late at night in Bangkok. The election has already begun....

Today, in honor of the election, I am wearing an Obama '08 button on my lapel. If the treatment and reaction throughout my day is any indication of what our world might become....I am overwhelmed with optimism. First, every single place I went, someone noticed the button and called out, "OBAMA!". There were international administrators from across the region at the Hotel. Many of them nodded and smiled, and even the non-Americans who reacted with huge enthusiasm. One man from Australia stopped me to talk politics for 10 minutes. The crew working behind the desk all gave a thumbs up...the taxi driver did not charge me for taking me to the airport.

I must explain that, once at the airport, I am one of very few Americans among Asians from all over this region. I might possibly be the only blond in either airport I have been in so far today, and won't see many if any Americans until Bangkok. I do not speak the language...thank goodness they speak English.

Upon seeing my button, everyone, without exception, smiles. I have received preferential treatment all day long. They didn't make me pay extra for a heavy bag, they treated me in short, like royalty. The stewardess told the pilot, who stood up in the cock pit to give me a thumbs up. Even the immigration official barely looked at my passport. He was much more interested in knowing an Obama supporter and what I thought would happen today.

When I was buying dinner at a very American McDonalds (the only place to get something to eat), the entire crew behind the counter (not one American) came to say kind words to me. The man who exchanged my money asked how I could do anything so far away from the USA. I told him, with some amount of pride, that I had voted by absentee ballot. He took my hand and said, "thank you so much for voting for Mr. Obama." There were actual tears in his eyes.

While waiting at the airport in Kota Kinabalu and girl about 9 years old saw my button. She smiled broadly. I said hello and she asked if I wanted Obama to win because she did and her whole family did and that that morning they said a prayer that he would. I told her that I thought Barack would like that a girl all the way in Kota Kinabalu said a prayer for him. She asked could I tell him that they were praying for him and I said I would send an email to his headquarters. She was so excited that she ran to tell her parents. Her father came over and asked me if I knew Obama. I told him I had seen him speak, but never met him. He said that his whole community was praying for Obama and that he appreciated that I would write an email to tell him. He took my hand and said, we are praying for all of the American people too. This was the second stranger to take my hand today. It was my turn to have tears in my eyes, because this man, who I didn't know, was completely sincere. I thanked him. He said, "all of us, you understand?" I said, "All of us together." We parted...smiling!

I write this as I sit in the airport at Kuala Lumpur waiting for hours for the plane. The women who guard the doors have on muslim headdresses, orange pants outfits and lime green jerseys. They are shy and reserved, yet they give me the thumbs up, and quietly whisper, "Obama" as I walk by. There are Thai and Chinese, and Indonesians and Indians surrounding me...The languages, dress, foods are all interesting. And sitting right next to me is a Buddhist monk, in just his orangish/yellow robes and shaved head. He smiles broadly when I look at him. He says frankly, "I like Obama."

The man behind the counter is Malaysian. He asks if I voted and when I confirm I have he laughs really loud and says something to the other official sitting next to him. This man laughs too. They both look at me intently. The one, fighting to find the right english begins, "This is (something in Malay). I smile saying I don't understand. He looks at his colleague and rattles something in Malay...The man says just a minute. He gets out a book. It is an english translation book. He says something to the man and hands him the book...pointing to a line on the page. The 1st man turns back to me and says..."this is fan/tas/a/ do you say?" I tell him, yes, he is right "Fantastic". They laugh again at their attempts. I laugh too. He stamps everything forcefully, "wham! wham! wham!" And then he says something none of these officials ever take time to say, "We hope you will come back and visit our country!" "Of course, I say, of course." I don't quite know how to explain the full meaning of his invitation. Americans haven't been at the top of the list for quite awhile and traveling around, it isn't hard to sense.

Our leaders reflect who we are as a country/nation. I have always been proud of my family and Oregon. I have not always been proud of our leaders and the choices they make. Today I am proud...I am proud of our country and I was tearful watching a top French official trying to explain to the BBC reporter why the whole world is watching this election and praying that Obama will become our president.

Well, thank you for letting me share. Tomorrow at 7am we head to the American Embassy gathering to watch the election results come in. We are attending with world leaders and diplomats. We are to dress "smart casual". It should be quite the I hope brings new hope to our country and the world.

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