Topic: Government and Politics

Staid Speech Is Cold Comfort

After all of the rancor last week over his planned back-to-school address, it was predictable that in the end President Obama would offer a largely non-controversial speech about working hard and staying in school. If he sticks to the text released today, that is pretty much what he will do. Unfortunately, whether or not that was his original intent – and no one knows for sure but the President and his advisors – many Obama supporters will likely use the relatively staid final product as grounds to smear people concerned about the speech as right-wing kooks or out-of-control partisans. At the very least, such an outcome would be in keeping with a lot of the email I’ve gotten since the story first broke. But it will miss several critical points:

  • No matter how innocuous the content of the speech, this could certainly be an address with very political goals, intended to cast the president in the warm glow of a man who just cares about kids. From kissing babies, to photo-op reading sessions featuring cute tikes on classroom floors, this could be just another instance of the old practice of using children as props for political gain. And how presumptuous of the president to make himself – rather than the children, their teachers, and their schools – the center of attention on what is the first day of school for millions of kids. Finally, add the parts of the speech that sound like the President patting himself on the back for overcoming difficulties as a youth, and the speech could easily have political aims.
  • Many people feared, thanks to politically and ideologically suggestive lesson guides created by the U.S. Department of Education, that the speech would be an effort at indoctrination. Critically, it was only after very loud, initial outrage that the Department made changes to the guides and the White House announced it would release the text of the speech ahead of time. Yet administration defenders act like everyone knew from the outset that the speech would just be about working hard and staying in school. And who knows what the speech might have looked like had there not been so negative an initial reaction.
  • Despite its generally innocuous tone, the speech does contain some controversial political and ideological assertions, including that “setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools” is the job of the federal government. Also, the things the President highlights as worthy aspirations are disproportionately government and non-profit work. And then there’s this self-aggrandizing assertion: “Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn.”
  • Ultimately, no matter what happens now that the speech has been published, one thing cannot be ignored or spun: When government controls education, wrenching political and social conflict is inevitable. Americans are very diverse – ideologically, ethnically, morally, religiously – but they all have to support a single system of government schools. As a result, they are constantly forced to fight to have their values and desires respected, and the losers inevitably have their liberty infringed. In this case, reasonable people who want their children to hear the President must fight it out with  equally reasonable people who do not want their children to watch the speech in school. It’s a situation completely at odds with a free society, but as we have seen not just with the current conflict, but seemingly endless battles over history textbooks, the teaching of human origins, sex education, and on and on, it is inevitable when government runs the schools. Which is why the most important lesson to be learned from this presidential-address donnybrook is that Americans need educational freedom. We need universal school choice or crippling conflicts like this will keep on coming, liberty will continue to be compromised, and our society will be ripped farther and farther apart.

    The Coming FHA Bail-Out

    The taxpayers continue to get hit for Uncle Sam’s profligate ways in guaranteeing and insuring loans to virtually anyone and everyone who wanted to buy a house.  The financial fall-out continues, and this time it isn’t Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  It is the Federal Housing Administration.

    Reports the Wall Street Journal:

    The Federal Housing Administration, hit by increasing mortgage-related losses, is in danger of seeing its reserves fall below the level demanded by Congress, according to government officials, in a development that could raise concerns about whether the agency needs a taxpayer bailout.

    The rising losses at the FHA, part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, come as the agency has rapidly increased its role in guaranteeing loans in an attempt to stabilize the housing market.

    It isn’t clear how the rising losses may affect home buyers. Options for the agency could include politically unpalatable choices, such as asking for taxpayer funds to boost reserves or increasing the premiums borrowers pay for the insurance offered by the agency. Agency officials say if there is a shortfall, they don’t have to do anything except report it to lawmakers. But some mortgage and housing analysts see trouble ahead. “They’re probably going to need a bailout at some point because they’re making loans in a riskier environment,” says Edward Pinto, a mortgage-industry consultant and former chief credit officer at Fannie Mae. “…I’ve never seen an entity successfully outrun a situation like this.”

    Oh well, it’s only money.  When you have a national debt of nearly $12 trillion, face another $10 trillion in red ink over the next decade, and have accumulated $107 trillion in unfunded liabilities for Medicare and Social Security alone, what’s a few billion dollars more?

    Contra the President, Americans Don’t Want Big Government

    Although candidate Barack Obama presented a moderate face, as president he has pushed a program for expanding government control at most every turn.  And that agenda appears to be causing the rush of independents away from the Democrats.

    According to political analyst Charlie Cook:

    What’s going on? While political analysts were fixated on last fall’s campaign and on Obama’s victory, inauguration, and first 100 days in office, two other dynamics were developing. First, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression scared many voters, making them worry about their future and that of their children and grandchildren. And the federal government’s failure to prevent that calamity fundamentally undermined the public’s already low confidence in government’s ability to solve problems. Washington’s unprecedented levels of intervention — at the end of Bush’s presidency and the start of Obama’s — into the private sector further unnerved the skittish public. People didn’t mind that the head of General Motors got fired. What frightened folks was that it was the federal government doing the firing.

    Many conservatives predictably fear — and some downright oppose — any expansion of government. But late last year many moderates and independents who were already frightened about the economy began to fret that Washington was taking irreversible actions that would drive mountainous deficits higher. They worried that government was taking on far more than it could competently handle and far more than the country could afford. Against this backdrop, Obama’s agenda fanned fears that government was expanding too far, too fast. Before long, his strategy of letting Congress take the lead in formulating legislative proposals and thus prodding lawmakers to take ownership in their outcome caused his poll numbers on “strength” and “leadership” to plummet.

    The Democrats still have plenty of time to revive their fortunes … by dropping plans to make an already huge government ever bigger.

    Method to the Meandering

    For Calvin Coolidge, one of our greatest presidents, reticence was both a personality trait and a political strategy.  As Coolidge told his Commerce secretary and successor, Herbert Hoover, “Nine-tenths of [visitors to the White House] want something they ought not to have.  If you keep dead still, they will run down in three or four minutes.”

    It seems that Ronald Reagan,–an admirer of Coolidge’s who hung Silent Cal’s portrait in the Cabinet Room–adopted a similar strategy, though one more in keeping with Reagan’s gregarious persona.  Alas, Ted Kennedy, who recounted the story in his upcoming memoir, wasn’t sharp enough to figure out what was going on.  From an article on the Kennedy book in today’s New York Times:

    [Senator Kennedy] said it had been difficult to get Reagan to focus on policy matters. He described a meeting with him that he and other senators had sought to press for shoe and textile import limits.

    The senators were told that they would have just 30 minutes with the president. Reagan began the meeting, the book said, commenting on Mr. Kennedy’s shoes — asking if they were Bostonians — and then talking for 20 minutes about shoes and his experience selling shoes for his father. “Several of us began conspicuously to glance at our watches.” But to no avail. “And it was over!” Mr. Kennedy said. “No one got a word in about shoe or textile quota legislation.”
     

    Huh. Go figure.

    (For an introduction to Coolidge’s virtues, try John Derbyshire’s wonderfully strange and charming novel Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream.)

    Presidential Cults

    Glenn Greenwald, author of Cato’s much-discussed paper on the success of drug decriminalization in Portugal, writes about cults of presidential personality. He notes that Jay Nordlinger of National Review and other conservatives – not to mention a few libertarians – have criticized the Obama administration’s plan to broadcast a presidential speech into American schools and push teachers to post Obama quotes in their classrooms and encourage students to talk about how President Obama inspires them.

    Greenwald never actually defends the Obama plan. But he does argue that conservatives have short memories when they say that this is something unique. In particular, he reminds us of the notorious Monica Goodling’s questions to job candidates at the George W. Bush Department of Justice, such as “[W]hat is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?” And also of White House political aide Sara Taylor, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “I took an oath to the president, and I take that oath very seriously.” Committee chairman Patrick Leahy had to ask her, “Did you mean, perhaps, you took an oath to the Constitution?”

    Greenwald has a good point. Both the red and blue teams have been far too quick to succumb to a cult of presidential personality. (And really, swooning over Reagan or Obama is sort of understandable. But George W. Bush? You have to wonder if they worked really hard at creating a Bush cult because there wasn’t really much there.)

    But I do see one difference: The Obama administration is trying to push its president-worship onto 50 million captive schoolchildren (not to mention using the NEA to enlist the nation’s artists in promoting Obama and his agenda). Goodling was asking people looking for government jobs why they wanted to “serve George W. Bush.” Now, sure, they should want to serve the public interest – and she was asking these questions to people seeking career legal positions as well as to political appointees. Still, it seems a smaller bit of cultishness than going into every public school.

    Gene Healy wrote about cultishness by both Bush and Obama supporters here.

    DC Gun Regulations

    A Washington Post reporter describes the rigmarole Washington D.C. residents must endure to purchase a gun and keep it in one’s home for purposes of self-defense. Snippet:

    It took $833.69, a total of 15 hours 50 minutes, four trips to the Metropolitan Police Department, two background checks, a set of fingerprints, a five-hour class and a 20-question multiple-choice exam.

    It’s a fair-minded article–not only about the government regulations, but also the factors that play into the decision to keep a gun–risk of crime, risk of accident, the personal willingness to use deadly force (not to mention getting approval from the spouse!)

    Cato Chairman Bob Levy, the prime mover of the landmark Heller ruling, discusses the next legal fight: Whether one can carry a firearm outside of the home for purposes of self-defense. Tom Palmer is suing the DC government on this. For more on the Second Amendment and gun control, check out the new Cato book, Gun Control on Trial, by Brian Doherty.