Should I Stay or Should I Go?
01-30-2009
As you can probably guess, I spent a good chunk of today talking about the news that Senator Judd Gregg might be tapped to be President Obama’s Commerce Secretary. Like a lot of political observers, I was very interested to see that Gregg did not take himself out of the running this morning, but instead would only say that he is “honored to be considered.” So, from all indications, it sounds like he is a serious candidate for the position left unfilled by Obama’s original nominee, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. The political implications of Gregg leaving the Senate are pretty obvious to anyone who follows congressional politics, although I would not be surprised to see Gov. Lynch throw a curve by appointing another Republican to the seat.
 
But the fact that Gregg is keeping his hat in the ring, despite intense pressure from Republican colleagues to stay, reminds me that it is often difficult to really know what a politician is thinking about his future career path at a given moment. At age 61, Gregg could in theory continue to serve in the Senate for another decade or more, or he could have instead decided that he’s not really interested in a bruising, expensive campaign for reelection in 2010, even as he schedules fundraisers to that end. He could be eager for a new professional challenge, or simply prepared to answer the president’s call to service in a time of economic crisis. I find that you can learn a lot in these moments about how a politician weighs competing personal and professional considerations, and I’m always intrigued by those who make a move that at first glance appears counterintuitive.
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100 Daze
01-29-2009
I will be a guest tomorrow morning on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange. I will be joining Jean Edward Smith, author of FDR (Random House, 2007), for a discussion of the frequent comparisons made between President Roosevelt’s New Deal and President Obama’s policy agenda. You can listen to the show live here (lower left) at 9 a.m, or catch it later here.
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Dial "M" for Mundane
01-28-2009
When I heard that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald had release some new wiretapped phone conversations to the Illinois Senate for use in its impeachment trial of Governor Rod Blagojevich, I thought perhaps we would finally get a good look at some damning evidence beyond what we’ve already heard on the U.S. Senate seat-for-sale episode. And, when I read reports that at least one Illinois state senator had referred to the content of the new tapes as “nauseating” and “sickening,” and worthy of “organized crime figures,” I assumed Blagojevich had been completely unmasked as a thug.
 
But then I listened to the tapes here, and I must say I was pretty underwhelmed. The tapes vaguely suggest that Blagojevich and a colleague are up to some sort of shenanigans, but not much else. Either there is more to these conversations than we were allowed to hear (doesn’t sound like it), or the state senator quoted above has a mighty weak constitution. I’m guessing Fitzgerald is saving the best stuff for the criminal trial. But if this is the best the senators have for the impeachment trial, then I’m not surprised some lawmakers are now expressing doubts about the case against the governor.
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You Can't Get There From Here
01-27-2009
If you have ever spent time trying to master the physical layout of Capitol Hill, as I did working in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s, you know that much of the physical space (especially underground) has a labyrinth quality to it. I was reminded of my time wandering the halls there by an amusing article on Politico.com today. It looks at some of the more creative uses of space in an institution which is apparently packed to rafters with congressional staff.
 
On a related note, newly sworn-in New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is experiencing her own office-related issues, as she takes over the seat vacated by Hillary Clinton.
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A Number 44 Filter
01-26-2009
In a post last week, I wrote about the adversarial relationship that inevitably develops between White House officials and the press corps assigned to cover their every move. My claim was that the instantaneous nature of today’s news cycle would likely accelerate the process of each side turning on the other. Although some political observers have argued the mainstream media was in the tank for Barack Obama throughout the election season, free passes typically vanish rather quickly, once the president and press corps assume their post-electoral institutional roles. I think reporters will be especially quick to do so this time around, given the criticism they received in the past for being too passive with President Bush, post-9/11.
 
As a result (as President Bush memorably noted), administrations look to find ways around the media filter, in order to increase the chances of getting their message out to the public as they intend it to be heard. For past presidents, this has usually meant bypassing the Washington press corps, and instead giving interviews to local media outlets around the country, where the news operations tend to be less adversarial in their coverage. But now President Obama is adding a whole new dimension by fully integrating web-based constituent outreach into the process of bypassing the media filter. As the New York Times observes today, this builds on Obama’s success in the same area during the presidential campaign.
 
This approach will certainly help Obama keep his expansive grassroots network invested in his presidency, and, in particular, it will allow him to target younger, tech-savvy voters who will comprise the foundation of any future Democratic coalition. But it is also true that for whatever unfiltered narrative the Obama Administration crafts for itself on the web, the Washington press corps will still write its own. Presidents that ignore this reality often end up with more aggravation than those who confront it head on. It remains to be seen which way Obama will go, but in the meantime he should remember the press is just down the hall.
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Why Wait 24 Hours?
01-23-2009
If these two items on Politico.com are any indication, the never-ending struggle between the White House and the media over control of the news cycle has picked up pretty much where it left off before the inauguration. Over the past few decades of technological innovation, the 24-hour news cycle has become the operational standard in the business, with both sides jockeying to shape how news emanating from the White House at any given moment is presented to the public, during the subsequent 24-hour period of news broadcasts and newspaper runs.
 
But it seems pretty obvious to me that what we are now experiencing is actually an instantaneous news cycle, in which the combination of even newer technology, blogs, the presence of traditional news outlets on the web, and the proliferation of cable news programs has resulted in a constant thirst for updated news content. My guess is that this new paradigm will put unparalleled demands on the White House communications shop, while also forcing reporters on the beat to compete more aggressively than ever for any new morsel of information on the president and his agenda. And, the strain of this new arrangement on both sides will show more quickly than ever before.
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Where's the Mimeograph Machine?
01-22-2009
An interesting piece in the Washington Post today details the significant constraints on the Obama Administration’s use of cutting edge communications technology in the White House. This circumstance is due in part to legitimate security concerns and federal archive regulations, but also to the fact that large bureaucracies like the executive branch tend to be late adopters of new technology. In the latter case, cost is usually a factor, coupled with general institutional inertia.
 
So, it will be fascinating to see whether an operation that gained a competitive advantage during the presidential campaign with its impressive use of web-based and other communications technologies will bow to the dictates of a large federal bureaucracy, or instead fight to bring it into the twenty-first century. At least it now looks like President Obama will get to keep a limited version of his blackberry access, so that’s a start.
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Faithfully Yours
01-21-2009
I was a little disappointed to hear the presidential oath of office flubbed yesterday. As millions of people witnessed, President Obama jumped the gun on the first part of the oath, and Chief Justice Roberts, perhaps thrown off his game, responded by placing the word faithfully in the wrong spot in the oath. For the sake of posterity, I was kind of hoping for a do-over. But once Roberts called Obama “Mr. President,” I knew that wasn’t likely.
 
Well, I wasn’t the only one looking for take two. A piece in today’s San Francisco Chronicle quotes several legal scholars who believe President Obama should redo the oath, just to be on the safe side. If nothing else, this topic should be fertile ground for fringe elements and conspiracy theorists on both the left and right. I can see the blog posts already. Was this a Republican plot to undermine the legitimacy of the Obama presidency?  Perhaps it was payback from Roberts for Obama’s Senate vote against his confirmation. Maybe Obama technically isn’t president after all. This could be perfect for the web.
 
Update (1/22/09): President Obama took the oath a second time last night, "out of an abundance of caution."  Obama didn't use a bible this time, however, which will no doubt provide some additional internet fodder for suspicious religious conservatives.
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The Transfer of Power
01-20-2009
At this point in my life, I have watched a lot of inaugurations. Richard Nixon’s second inauguration in 1973 is my first clear memory, and I haven’t missed one (on television) since. Regardless of my personal feelings about either the incoming or outgoing president over the years, the strongest emotion I always seem to feel at the end of the ceremony is one of relief.
 
When I think of the way the democratic transfer of power is often subverted in other parts of the world, and recall the paroxysms of violence that can accompany it, I can’t help but marvel at how peaceful and seamless our process is, president after president, and generation after generation. This speaks not only to the venerable nature of our Constitution, but to our collective willingness as a people to be bound by its dictates. That is not only a source of relief to me, but of pride, as well.
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MLK Day 2009
01-19-2009
As we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let me suggest spending a little time today exploring the vast treasure trove of audio, video, still photography and biographical information readily available on the web, through sites like YouTube and Google. You can bring Dr. King to life instantly, and the ex-professor in me says there is no better way to introduce tech-savvy young adults and children to his legacy.
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Fall Into The Gap
01-16-2009
John DiStaso has an interesting piece in the Union Leader that serves as an exit interview of sorts (and companion piece to this op-ed) with outgoing state Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen. As I have said publicly on several occasions, I think Fergus is on the right track with his take on where the state Republican Party should head in the future, if it hopes to regain its competitiveness.
 
In the DiStaso piece, Cullen is quoted as saying:
 
“We have to be talking about issues that centrist voters care about. I suggest that we talk less about taxes and less about social issues and more about education, health care and conservation, as three examples…If you're 40 years old and you have kids and you have elderly parents and you've seen your IRA decline by 40 percent last year, your priorities are not on protesting civil unions. You are concerned about education and health care."
 
It’s not just 40 year-olds. Republicans should be concerned that Barack Obama won the 18 to 29 year-old demographic with 66 percent of the vote nationally. These are the kind of results that suggest the possibility of a generational shift in partisan identification. I saw this same phenomenon work in reverse to Republican advantage almost 30 years ago, while I was a college student during Ronald Reagan’s first term. Although we haven’t heard much about it yet from Gov. Sununu, I think bridging this generation gap will be one of the most difficult challenges he will face as leader of the state party.
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Lynch Bows Out
01-15-2009
You may have heard that Gov. John Lynch has now officially taken himself out of the running as a potential Democratic challenger to incumbent Senator Judd Gregg in 2010. In removing himself from contention now, Lynch has very quickly neutralized speculation that could have become a major political distraction for him over the next year, as he grapples with the state’s significant budgetary shortfall. I am sure he will still be asked regularly about whether he will seek a record fourth term as governor, but that question hasn’t preoccupied local political elites in the same way the possible Gregg challenge has.
 
Given that voters see the recession as a largely national (or global) phenomenon, rather than as a uniquely New Hampshire problem, I don’t think the current fiscal crisis would have greatly damaged Lynch’s viability for a run at the seat. But it would have put him in the somewhat awkward position of needing to raise millions of dollars for a competitive race, while also trying to keep state government financially solvent. While it is true that Lynch has never shown much interest in making the jump to Congress, my guess is this fundamental contradiction was also not lost on the governor.
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Is Mumbo Jumbo an Economic Term?
01-14-2009
I have been watching Barack Obama and other members of his economic team attempt to lay the groundwork for Obama’s economic program in Congress over the past week. They seem to be making progress, but their desire to maintain maximum policy-making latitude (underscored with an Obama veto threat) has made following the whole economic rollout enterprise feel a bit like tracking a moving target.
 
Given my own struggle to get a handle on the precise dimensions of the Obama economic program, I was especially amused to come across this item yesterday. It recounts Democratic Senator Bill Nelson’s public accusation that Obama nominee for director of the Office of Management and Budget, Peter Orszag, was speaking “mumbo jumbo” at his confirmation hearing, rather than providing helpful details on Obama’s plans for the economy to the Senate Budget Committee.
 
So at least it’s not just me hankering for the Obama team to put a bit more policy meat on the economic bones. But the tradeoff is that we are getting an interesting preview of what may turn out to be a very deliberate (almost conservative) Obama management style in office. I think the frustration expressed by Senator Nelson yesterday is indicative of the incoming Obama Administration’s remarkable ability to make the policy-making process feel both wide open and tightly-controlled at the same time.
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Obamanomics
01-13-2009
I will be a guest Friday morning on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange.  We’ll be taking a big picture look at Barack Obama’s economic program, as it continues to evolve in the days leading up to his inauguration. You can listen to the show live on the web at 9 a.m. here (lower left), or catch it later here.
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Mistakes, I've Made a Few
01-12-2009
As we all know by now, President Bush is not a huge fan of introspection, particularly when it comes in the form of forced psychoanalysis at the collective hands of the White House press corps. So, I was a bit surprised to see him actually take the bait on a few of the usual mistakes/regrets/animosity questions posed this morning in his final presidential press conference. Bush offered up a few morsels, including the “Mission Accomplished” banner, his occasionally overheated rhetoric (think, “Bring it on!”), and some of his actions (well, sort of) in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
 
But it should be clear to anyone who watched this farewell performance that Bush continues to believe in the fundamental correctness of his major decisions as president, even if (in his mind) other political actors or circumstances often intervened to cause him to fall short of his desired outcome. And, anyone who still thinks Bush is largely oblivious to the criticisms leveled against him, might have been surprised to hear him recite at great length the various negative critiques against his presidency. He may not give them much credence, but he has definitely been listening.
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Brian's Song
01-09-2009
Like many political observers in the state, I was really disappointed to learn earlier today that the plug is being pulled on the PolitickerNH website. Brian Lawson has done a tremendous job of providing us with a micro-level view of New Hampshire’s unique brand of politics, and it felt to me like the site was really starting to hit its stride. Full disclosure here - Brian is a former student of mine, and I can honestly say he was perfectly suited for this particular reporting gig.
 
I’ll also miss being able to one-stop-shop for insights and analysis from James Pindell, Dante Scala, and the rest. But the web is constantly evolving in surprising and unpredictable ways, and there will only continue to be intense interest in Granite State politics. So, I am hopeful that we will be seeing much more from Cosmo and company in the near future.
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Tom Terrific
01-08-2009
If you were watching the cable news channels today, you might have caught a few clips of the veritable love fest that was Tom Daschle’s courtesy visit to the Senate. Daschle made the return trip to kick off the confirmation process for his nomination as Barack Obama’s Health and Human Services Secretary. In that capacity, Daschle will play a central role in designing and moving any health care reform package Obama brings to Congress in the coming months.
 
I can still remember how absolutely exhausted Daschle seemed in 2004, shortly after his close (around 4500 votes) loss to John Thune in the South Dakota Senate race. Daschle had lost his position as Senate Majority Leader in the wake of the brutal 2002 midterm elections, and had spent the next two years taking a merciless political beating from the Bush Administration, in his capacity as Minority Leader. When Daschle was defeated in 2004, it really struck me that he had finally reached the end of his long political rope as a legislator.
 
I didn’t see or hear much in the news from Daschle over the next four years, until he reemerged seemingly rejuvenated in 2008, as one of Barack Obama’s chief political surrogates in the media. I thought he was tremendously effective in that role.  Daschle turned in a series of strong appearances on the Sunday morning shows and cable news programs, often at times when the Obama campaign seemed to be struggling a bit. If today’s initial hearing is any indication, Daschle should be easily confirmed.  He seems poised to have a real impact in the critical area of health care policy.
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Lynch Pin
01-07-2009
I will be a guest Friday morning on New Hampshire Public Radio's The Exchange.  We'll recap Governor John Lynch’s third inaugural address, and discuss what might be in store for New Hampshire state politics in 2009. You can listen to the show live at 9 a.m. here (lower left), or catch it later here.
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Bill of Sale
01-06-2009
I guess I am not surprised that New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is in hot water sufficient to cause him to withdraw his nomination as Barack Obama’s Commerce Secretary. I have written before about Richardson’s big personality. In talking with reporters and political observers following Richardson over the past few years, I often heard whispers about “skeletons in his closest,” or his tendency to skate close to the edge as “a man of large appetites.” No one could (or would) ever provide any real detail, so I usually wrote most of it off as standard campaign trail gossip. Still, you always got the feeling with Richardson that the proverbial shoe was about to drop. So, this latest “pay-to-play” scandal certainly doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.
 
Richardson maintains he has done nothing improper, and is only withdrawing to prevent the lengthy federal probe from turning his confirmation process into a circus. This is probably an accurate assessment of what would ensue. And, the speed of his withdrawal is indicative of the Obama team’s penchant for a quick severing of ties with problematic individuals. Nonetheless, Richardson is an experienced political player, who has spent most of the time since the end of the Clinton Administration trying to make his way back to Washington. Should Richardson be cleared of any wrongdoing, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him saddle up and ride east once again.
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Please Be Seated
01-05-2009
Watching NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday morning, I was not mightily impressed with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s explanation for why the Senate Democratic Caucus has the constitutional authority to deny Roland Burris his appointment to fill Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat. I am not a lawyer, but my sense of the Constitution is that the Senate can deny Burris the seat only if he does not meet the constitutionally-mandated requirements for office. Reid stated yesterday that this hurdle is not an issue for Burris, which leaves the Majority Leader on pretty shaky ground.
 
Rod Blagojevich is still the duly elected governor of Illinois, and has not yet been indicted by the Justice Department. Democrats may not like the pall that the whole seamy Blagojevich episode is casting on their January return to unified government, but that is a political matter, not a constitutional one. They should seat Burris and let the chips fall where they may, in terms of their ability to hold onto the seat in 2010.
 
That said, Congressman Bobby Rush’s recent comments that to deny Burris the seat would represent a legislative “lynching,” are equally ridiculous. The issue here is not whether Democrats want to prevent an African-American from returning to the Senate, but whether they can prevent a loss of the Illinois seat at the next midterm elections. While there may be strategic questions about who will have the broadest appeal for the Illinois electorate, where the political interests of Chicagoland and Downstate Illinois are often at odds, I don’t think race is playing into this in the way Rush suggested.
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