Friday Talking Points [127] -- Letting A Crisis Go To Waste

President Barack Obama's administration was supposed to follow a basic premise: never let a crisis go to waste. That was according to one of his own advisors, shortly after Obama took office. But so far, their track record on doing so has been decidedly mixed.

When Obama took office, there certainly was no shortage of crises awaiting them. To their credit, they moved swiftly on their stimulus package, which stopped the hemorrhaging of jobs to the point where last month was deemed a "bad" month, because only 40,000 private-sector jobs were created (along with 400,000 temporary Census jobs). That's a long way from when he took office, when 750,000 jobs were being lost each and every month -- an 800,000 jobs-per-month difference, in fact. Obama also used this crisis to pass his healthcare reform measure, which all but consumed an entire year for him and for Congress.

But Wall Street is still operating under the same rules they were when our economy almost collapsed. It's been almost a year and a half, and we have not changed the rules of the road for Wall Street (or Main Street, for that matter). On this issue, significant progress has at least been made. The House and Senate have named the membership of the conference committee which will hash out final language between the Wall Street reform bills which have already passed both houses. Obama says he wants a bill to sign by the Fourth of July, which may be optimistic but is certainly possible if the committee doesn't get bogged down. So we may not have all that long to wait before the financial crisis can truly have been said not to have "gone to waste" for Obama and Democrats in Congress.

Now, even though it may not seem like it, the current crisis in the Gulf of Mexico should have come with perfect timing for Obama. Nothing can minimize the disaster the Gulf region is facing, so forgive me for even discussing the political ramifications here. But Barack Obama has (so far) all but wasted this crisis, at least in political terms.

One of Obama's major agenda items -- on a par with healthcare reform -- was setting a new energy policy for this country's future. It has stalled, due in large part to the petulance of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. Graham co-wrote an energy bill with Democrats, but now won't support the bill he himself helped write, because he's still miffed at how Democrats passed healthcare reform, or that they'd dare bring up immigration reform, or whatever else put his knickers in a twist.

But that's all kind of beside the point. Because whether it take the form of pushing an energy bill, or pushing Congress to immediately change the safety rules for offshore drilling, or to call for the removal of the liability cap, or to completely clean house at all mining and oil regulatory agencies, or to call for a jobs program to clean up the Gulf, or to send FEMA in to help people deal with getting compensated by BP, or any number of other ideas to somehow make sure that this sort of thing never happens again (or, if it does, that we're a lot better prepared to deal with it) -- I simply have not heard President Obama out there strongly making any of these cases.

Compare the speed with which the PATRIOT ACT (sorry for the all-caps "shouting" but it's properly an acronym) sped through Congress under President Bush. I'm not a big fan of this legislation or anything, but Bush used a national crisis to get exactly what he wanted from Congress because at that point he could really have gotten anything he asked for (which he realized). While I'm not comparing the scale of 9/11 to the oil spill here, the country's mood from the start of this has been unified in the same sort of way -- this is a threat to the nation's security (although with a very different definition of "security").

Obama's basic political problem from the Gulf spill is how reactive he looks. It is not (no matter what the mainstream media tells you) that he's not emotional enough or even that the spill is being counted as "Day XX," just as the media did during (as many have pointed out) Jimmy Carter's Iran hostage situation. The real problem for Obama is that he was very slow to adequately react, and that reacting is seemingly all he's done since. I haven't heard a whole lot of proactive comments from Obama, in other words.

So this week, we're turning over the Friday Talking Points part of the program to suggestions as to what Obama could say at this point to show America that he truly is in full control of what is going on, and that BP's ass (as Obama himself put it this week) has been thoroughly and resoundingly kicked.


This week has been unusual in one respect, at least for us here at the Friday Talking Points Award Council. This is because three contenders achieved a singular distinction this week -- they were simultaneously both impressive and disappointing.

In recognition of this feat, we're going to strike a special Scales In The Balance medallion for each of these three folks. Like Lady Justice (or Saint Peter, or Fate, if you prefer) measuring your life with the grand scales, when the scales quiver between sinking and rising until they strike an uneasy balance; the SITB award should be seen as neither a good thing nor bad, rather that future acts are required to tip the result to either side of the equation. Because they achieved both good and bad this week, all three will be mentioned both here and in the next award segment.

The first to receive her SITB is Senator Blanche Lincoln. Lincoln won a primary runoff race in Arkansas which many expected her to lose. The polls showed her down a few points heading into the election, but when the votes were counted, she had pulled off an impressively unexpected victory, to remain the Democratic nominee in the fall's race (which she has a good chance of losing to the Republican).

The second to gain the SITB award is Lincoln's challenger, Bill Halter. Halter ran an impressive campaign, and forced Lincoln into the runoff in the first place by his impressive showing in the primary. Much more importantly, though, Halter forced Blanche Lincoln to the left during the campaign itself -- something which would not have happened if Lincoln had faced no serious competitor. Whether this was a campaign ploy or not on Lincoln's part remains to be seen, but the fact is that without Bill Halter's campaign, we simply wouldn't have Lincoln's very tough derivatives reform language in the Wall Street reform bill currently in conference committee. For this impressive achievement, Bill Halter has to be recognized.

And the third SITB award, with special boot-shaped "Waiting For The Other Shoe To Drop clusters, goes to Alvin Greene of South Carolina. Greene managed to win the Democratic nomination for Senate in his state, even though nobody has a clue who the man is or why he was even in the race (see Thursday's column for more details). Various theories have been put forth for how an unemployed man with $114 in the bank could have managed to run a race where the only money or time Greene spent was to write a check for $10,400 when he filed his campaign papers. Our guess here is that, so far, the media has largely been ignoring one possible reason for Greene's stunning victory (with 59 percent of the vote) -- South Carolina has an "open primary" system, and Republican Senator Jim DeMint didn't face a primary fight of his own. Meaning Republicans could have asked for Democratic ballots last Tuesday (legal, under open primary laws), and had themselves a bit of a joke at the Democrats' expense. But this is all rampant speculation on our part, with absolutely nothing to back it up, we have to admit. But for the simple fact of his victory (and his victory margin) alone, Alvin Greene at least deserves to be recognized.

This week, however, the real winner of the coveted Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award is none other than the website Now, technically, Salon is a journalistic entity, but we're going to bend the rules enough to allow them to be named anyway. Since we're changing awards around this week anyway, we'll call it the Most Impressive Democratically-Leaning Entity Of The Week award, just to satisfy the purists.

Salon this week exhibited a gold standard of internet journalism, although it was pointedly snubbed by the mainstream media when it came time for giving credit. Salon has, for about the past year, been doggedly following a story that isn't even a "lefty" type of story, and as a direct result, has gotten the Pentagon to admit error and change their ways and fire some people. Since we are talking about the Pentagon here, this should be big news.

But in all the stories you may have seen over the past week on the subject of gross mismanagement at Arlington National Cemetery, it's as if Salon didn't even exist. The mainstream media stories typically begin "After conducting a review, the Pentagon announced today...."

But when does the Pentagon voluntarily launch a review of anything it does? Answer: not very freakin' often. The Pentagon launched the review in the first place because Salon kept uncovering more and writing more stories about the shameful abuses, shameful lapses, and shameful all-around state of Arlington's records -- which are not even computerized. Slips of paper from the 1860s are stunningly more accurate than anything Arlington's got in place today to tell which exact soldier lies in which exact grave, and what exactly the headstone above those remains says.

This week, the results of the official Pentagon investigation were made public. And some people rightly got fired. And all of it was a direct result in a year-long stellar example of internet journalism -- which (of course) was simply not acknowledged in any way whatsoever by the mainstream media, who prefers to label anyone writing online as "pajama-clad bloggers living in their mothers' basements."

Because this snub was so blatant, and because Salon deserves a lot better for their extensive series of articles which brought all of this to light in the first place, we hereby award them this week's MIDLEOTW award.


First, let's quickly run through the disappointment from our three SITB award winners, then we'll get to the main event.

This week, Blanche Lincoln pretty much showed why everyone is so suspicious that she'll return to her corporatist ways now that the primary election is over, by voting (yet again) with the Republicans on an effort by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Drill, Baby, Drill) to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its power to, you know, protect the environment. Luckily, Murkowski's bill failed, but certainly not due to Democrats like Lincoln. This sort of thing is why a lot of people are nervous that Lincoln (even though she's on the conference committee) may abandon her support of the strong derivatives language she herself fought for. In other words, Arkansans (and the rest of us) should look forward to more disappointment from Blanche Lincoln, as her vote this week so blatantly showed.

Bill Halter, while certainly impressive for the reasons stated above, lost. This disappointed a lot of folks on the Left -- and the Unions in particular. Both the Left and the Unions can comfort themselves by saying "well, we made our point," but the point would have been made a lot stronger if Halter had actually won against Lincoln.

Alvin Greene, it was revealed the day after he won his stunning primary upset, was arrested for allegedly showing a young woman pornography without her consent. Worse news, there is (although it has yet to surface) a videotape of this encounter. There is also, as noted earlier, the "other shoe to drop" at some point with Greene. Because of his arrest, he was appointed a public defender. But you only get a public defender if you can prove you have no assets. A few months later, Greene plunked down over ten grand to file his candidacy. A few months after that -- this week -- as he painfully proved he is not ready to be interviewed by the press, Greene stated he only had a little over a hundred bucks in the bank. Something about all of that simply does not add up -- which is why we're all waiting for that second shoe to hit the floor.

But the really disappointing thing this week was the support shown Lincoln by the White House and establishment Democrats (most notably, Bill Clinton). Glenn Greenwald, over at Salon, scathingly exposes (his whole article is well worth reading and highly recommended) this blatant hypocrisy (emphasis in original, but links removed):

What happened in this race also gives the lie to the insufferable excuse we've been hearing for the last 18 months from countless Obama defenders: namely, if the Senate doesn't have 60 votes to pass good legislation, it's not Obama's fault because he has no leverage over these conservative Senators. It was always obvious what an absurd joke that claim was; the very idea of The Impotent, Helpless President, presiding over a vast government and party apparatus, was laughable. But now, in light of Arkansas, nobody should ever be willing to utter that again with a straight face. Back when Lincoln was threatening to filibuster health care if it included a public option, the White House could obviously have said to her: if you don't support a public option, not only will we not support your re-election bid, but we'll support a primary challenger against you. Obama's support for Lincoln did not merely help; it was arguably decisive....

In other words, Obama exploited the trust that African-American voters place in him to tell them something that is just absurd: that Blanche Lincoln, one of the most corporatist members of Congress, works for their interests. Bill Clinton did the same with the Arkansas voters who still trust him. In light of all this, the next time some "conservative" Democrat such as Lincoln plays the Villain Rotation game and opposes some Good, Progressive Bill which the White House pretends to support -- but, gosh darn it, just can't get the 60 votes for -- are we going to have to endure the excuse from Obama loyalists that Obama has no leverage over Democratic members of Congress?

What's going on here couldn't be clearer if the DNC produced neon signs explaining it. Blanche Lincoln and her corporatist/centrist Senate-friends aren't some unfortunate outliers in the Democratic Party. They are the Democratic Party. The outliers are the progressives. The reason the Obama White House did nothing when Lincoln sabotaged the public option isn't because they had no leverage to punish her if she was doing things they disliked. It was because she was doing exactly what the White House and the Party wanted. The same is true when she voted for Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies, serves every corporate interest around, and impedes progressive legislation. Lincoln doesn't prevent the Democratic Party from doing and being what it wishes it could do and be. She enables the Party to do and be exactly what it is, what it wants to be, what serves its interests most. That's why they support her so vigorously and ensured her victory: the Blanche Lincolns of the world are the heart, soul and face of the national Democratic Party.

But the actual Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award goes to the unnamed (cough, cough... Rahm Emanuel... cough) "senior White House official" who responded to Lincoln's win with: "Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members' money down the toilet on a pointless exercise. If even half that total had been well-targeted and applied in key House races across this country, that could have made a real difference in November."

Way to rally the base, heading into a midterm election! Way to fire up the loyal Democratic troops! Nothing like telling groups with lots of political money to spend that they should ask the White House how to spend it before they dare to do so!

For, once again, annoying the snot out of a major portion of the Democratic base, the unnamed senior (cough, cough... Rahm...) White House official (cough... Emanuel... cough, cough) is our Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week.

[Contact the White House on their official contact page, to let them know what you think of their actions.]


Volume 127 (6/11/10)

This week, the news media went on a spree of "Day XX," as I mentioned. So, in keeping with mindless media herd mentality, I declare this "Day 7 of Week 127" of the Friday Talking Points.


Last week, of course, the media was obsessing over how Obama spoke about the Gulf. Obama obliged them a bit with his "whose ass to kick" statement midweek. But the real problem is not Obama's level of emotion, it's the actual content of what he's saying. And that content needs to get a whole lot stronger very quickly, or else he's going to be seen as standing on the sidelines of the entire problem.

So this week, rather than discrete talking points, I present a speech I'd like to see Obama give. Pre-empt some silly summer television season for a 20-minute speech from the Oval Office, and speak directly to the nation. If Obama said even a tiny portion of the following, it would do him some real good at this point.

But whatever he says, he simply has got to break out of his reactive passivity, and in some way or another grasp the reins of the situation. No, he can't personally swim down and plug the leak, but he sure could be doing a lot of other things at this point, to float ideas on what to do next.

So, with all due respect, here's what I would like to hear from Obama at this point:


I'd like to talk to you tonight about what is going on down in the Gulf of Mexico, and what we are proposing to do about cleaning up the mess. So far, BP's response has been lacking, so tonight I'd like to let everyone know what we think are the appropriate next steps to take here.

I am calling on Congress to remove the corporate welfare of letting oil companies who drill in dangerous places have any sort of 'liability cap' at all. This is government interference in the free market, and it has to stop. Just like any other business, we think that oil exploration companies should have to buy insurance which covers any accident that might happen -- fully. If that means smaller companies won't be able to afford to drill in certain places, well that is just the free market working to protect America's risk. Because imagine if it weren't BP facing this disaster right now, but some tiny oil drilling company instead. That company would quickly go bankrupt, and you know who would be footing the entire bill for cleanup, and the entire cost of the ruined Gulf Coast economy right now? It would be you -- the American taxpayer. I don't think that's right, but that's exactly what people arguing against a cap are saying -- that you should be on the hook if a disaster like this happens to a smaller company. I don't think that's right, and I want Congress to immediately pass a bill removing all such liability caps and put it on my desk by the end of the week. So far, Republicans have been preventing this legislation from even being debated upon, and that is just wrong. I call on Republicans to remove your "holds" from this legislation, so that we can get it passed quickly, for the good of the country.

The next thing I am demanding from Congress is that they, within the next two weeks, pass a bill to revive the Depression Era "Civilian Conservation Corps." This will not cost the taxpayers one red cent, because the entire cost of this operation will be billed directly to BP. The CCC, back in the 1930s, constructed many projects across this land, some of which we still enjoy today. But the 2010 version of the CCC will concentrate solely on the Gulf oil disaster. We will hire thousands of people to clean the beaches, to save wildlife, to deploy booms and barriers, and to help in all other ways to clean up this spill. The first people who will be considered for these jobs are those whose livelihoods have been devastated in the region, as a direct result of BP's disaster. They will be paid a decent wage, and we will train them quickly and deploy them wherever the oil shows up on our beaches. We need to put the Americans whose financial lives have been destroyed back to work cleaning it up, and we need to do it now. These jobs will be temporary, and will end when the disaster ends, when everyone can get back to doing what they were doing before the spill happened. And BP is going to pay the entire cost of doing so.

I also call on Congress to immediately pass a law stating that anyone whose claims BP cannot address in a two-week period will have their claims automatically paid out by FEMA, who will then turn around and charge BP for every penny. The cash flow situation by people and businesses in the region is in crisis, and BP simply has to move faster on these claims. Anyone whose claim is rejected by BP will also be allowed to appeal to FEMA in order to be compensated. If it is found BP wrongly rejected the claim, then FEMA will pay it and charge BP triple what the claim amount was. This should provide a little incentive for them to speed up their claims-processing abilities.

Last week, I was widely quoted saying I was going to find out whose ass to kick in this situation. I now have a list. Dominating this list, of course, is BP. This oil spill is their responsibility to clean up and make right. Other than BP, though, I have a few more keisters to kick. We are going to review all federal regulatory agencies which deal with our natural resources, and we are going to clean house. This will result in rules separating regulators from the industries they regulate. We simply cannot afford to continue the Republican tradition of allowing industries to basically regulate themselves, because we've all seen what that leads to. So we are going to sweep these agencies clean with a new broom of ethics rules that will put an end to the revolving doors between regulators and the businesses they're supposed to be watching over. We've got to stop the foxes from guarding the henhouse of responsibly dealing with America's natural resources.

What astonishes me personally is that here we are, almost two months in to this disaster, and Congress is bickering. Republicans are blocking anything from getting done. Well, you know what? This is a national emergency. It is time to put away partisanship on the issue of what to do about BP, what to do about the Gulf, and what to do about making sure this never happens again.

Contrary to my political opponents' caricature of Democrats, I do not want to "take over" BP with some "big government bailout." Instead, I want the free market to work. But that means when you cause someone else's business or job harm, you have to pay them restitution. That is a core tenet of the free market -- you pay for damage your company has done. BP has done a massive amount of damage, not just to the Gulf's pristine waters, but to the environment, to the financial health of thousands of people, and to our economy. We are going to hold BP responsible for what they have done. This is a company that can afford to do so. The entire cost of this cleanup, with all associated costs, is likely going to be less than just the profit that BP makes in one single average quarter. They are fully capable of bearing the cost of this horrendous accident. And I, for one, am going to dedicate myself to making sure that every thin dime of damage is paid for -- whether to fishermen or other businesses affected by this disaster, to the states affected like Louisiana, or to the federal government for our efforts to clean up their mess.

That's the promise I make to you, the American people, tonight. This will not cost taxpayers a dime. But the federal government is going to move into action, because BP is simply not moving fast enough. And where we do, we are going to bill BP for the full amount, and then not let them rest until the bill is marked "paid in full."

After Congress deals with the immediate emergency legislation I have proposed, they need to get moving on passing a true energy policy for America, to provide green jobs and address our future energy needs. But for right now, we need to pass a few laws to get out of the mess BP has created.

Some day in the future, the Gulf will be cleaned up. Our beaches will go back to being pristine vacation destinations. Fishermen will thrive, catching and selling healthy seafood. The oil stains will be washed away. And I swear to you, America, BP is going to foot the entire bill for getting us there.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

Full archives of FTP columns:

All-time award winners leaderboard, by rank

Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground