Nov 30 2009

Two questions for Obama on Afghanistan

Here are two questions for President Obama before tomorrow night’s speech on Afghanistan:

  • How many months did it take for President Nixon to end the Vietnam War with his “Vietnamization” plan?
  • When was the last time a general in the field told a president, when asked to assess a battlefield situation: “Sir, this is a real dog, unwinnable, it is a mistake being here?”

Okay, okay, my first query is a trick question because Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization did not end the war. Nixon and Henry Kissinger prolonged the war, which continued until Congress finally shut down funding in 1975. Even then, it was over the objections of President Gerald Ford.

There is no trick to the second question, however, because when General Stanley McChrystal requested 40,000 more troops for Afghanistan, he took his place in a long line of military men who have called for more troops. The job of generals is to fight, not to consider the possibility that the fight itself is wrong. William Westmoreland assured President Johnson the thousands of deaths were not in vain – with more troops he could destroy the North Vietnamese. Douglas MacArthur had only one military strategy in Korea – forward. Franks and Petraeus believe the answer in Iraq has been more troops. Despite the conventional wisdom that the surge troop addition “worked,” an honest assessment would wait until after we leave Iraq to judge whether a post-U.S. invasion Iraq is a more stable peaceful country than it was prior to our invasion.

The point is what did Obama expect McChrystal to tell him? The president’s time would have been more valuably spent getting more counsel from historians, Afghanistan experts, and anti-terrorism experts, who could have made the following points more persuasively than I can:

First. It is risky business to think you can change reality by propping up corrupt governments that are fighting counter-insurgency forces of indigenous people, even if the insurgents are not good guys. Home grown forces can be stubborn foes, especially when the government they are fighting is no one’s friend. Many foreigners have found this out the hard way in Afghanistan. From the ancient Greeks and Persians to Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union in 1988, foreigners have decided to leave Afghanistan when they could not bend Afghanis to their will in this country of deserts, mountains, and caves.

Second, just as Vietnamization did not work because the South Vietnamese did not think the corrupt government of Saigon was worth the fight, so too are the Afghanis resisting American requests to fight the Taliban. They are saying in Kabul and Kandahar what we heard in Saigon: this is the Americans’ war, not ours. The Washington Post reported on Sunday that the Afghan government has been able to recruit fewer than 2,000 recruits a month to fight. That is less than half the amount expected in the McChrystal plan. The U.S. generals themselves have often mused to the media about their inability to change hearts and minds in Afghanistan.

On Tuesday President Obama will tell us we are in Afghanistan to fight a war against global terrorism. He is right, but sending troops into a country that does not want them, with no stable government, is not the answer. President Clinton may have the appropriate strategy of using strategic missile strikes at Taliban targets, to keep them off balance.

If Obama proceeds with his Afghanization he will be no more successful than was Nixon with Vietnamization. Eventually, we will leave as many others have left, with nothing to show but loss of life on both sides.

I realize that Obama inherited the Afghanistan-Pakistan terrorist mess, but this is no excuse. History is filled with leaders who continue wars they have inherited because they do not want to be the one who pulled out. We now know that Johnson, Nixon, and Bush sent young Americans to die in unwinnable efforts because they themselves lacked the courage to be known as presidents who pulled out.

It’s just that we had hoped Obama would be different.


My last post described both the Pew poll and the ABC News poll as finding that more Americans thought global warming was a “serious problem” than thought it was happening. This was an accurate report of the Pew poll’s findings, but an inaccurate description of the ABC poll. In the ABC News poll, only those who said they felt that global warming was happening were asked if they believed it was a serious problem. The actual numbers for the ABC News poll, released on November 15, reported 72% of the public believes global warming is happening, and 82% of those people believe it is a serious problem. Apologies and many thanks to Gary Langer, director of the ABC News poll, for pointing out my error.

Nov 25 2009

Global warming polls’ hidden meanings

I recently advised a long-standing client who works for an environmental foundation to pay very little attention to the national polls on the environment, because they serve as a distraction from the foundation’s work. I could tell from the response that my client was thinking, “Odd advice from a pollster.”

The most recent polls on global warming are an example of surveys with hidden meanings.

Last month a new poll by the Pew Research Center sent shock waves across the environmental community when it reported that the percentage of Americans who believe there is solid evidence that global warming exists declined since last year, from 71% in April 2008 to 57% in October 2009. This week, ABC News released a poll corroborating the Pew findings. ABC reported that the number of Americans who believe global warming is occurring has declined from 80% in July of 2008 to 72% in November of this year.

But the story does not end there. Both polls asked questions about whether global warming was a serious problem, and both reported that more people thought global warming was a serious problem than said there was evidence that it existed.

Say what?

Pew reported that 57% think it exists and 68% think it is a serious problem. ABC reports that 72% say it is occurring and 82% say it is a serious problem.

The answer to the conundrum lies in question wording. Pew asks: “From what you have heard and read, is there solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades?” Therefore, you could believe that the “evidence” might not be solid, but still think this is a serious problem we need to address.

The ABC question asks: “You may have heard about the idea that the world’s temperature may have been going up slowly over the past 100 years. What is your personal opinion on this – do you think this is probably happening or do you think this is probably not happening?” You might think that the world’s temperature has only been going up for the past 50 years and still be concerned about it.

In our work at BRS, we know from focus groups that people do not think about global warming in terms of its causes – CO2 emissions – as much as its impact. Most people can only talk about global warming in terms of what impacts it may have. A question on awareness, therefore, needs references to the stated impacts of global warming in order to provide a context that people can understand. You might ask: Do you agree or disagree with those who say that the earth is experiencing global warming, which they say is causing the melting of the polar icecaps and more severe weather?

Providing context is just as important in reporting poll results as in question wording. Gary Langer of the ABC poll made a good attempt at providing context when he reported in the first paragraph of his release of the poll that “the drop … (is) almost exclusively among conservatives and Republicans.” Since Republicans make up just 25% of Americans in the ABC poll, this gives you a better idea of how widespread – or not – the drop in awareness has become. It is one thing if Americans across the board are becoming skeptical on global warming. It is quite another if the drop is limited primarily to a group of people representing a quarter of the country, half of whom (52%) also believe that the liberal activist group Acorn stole the Presidential election for Barack Obama.

Deeper into the ABC poll, we learn that a majority – 55% – still want the United States to take action on global warming even if other major industrial countries such as China and India do less. A similar number – 59% – in the Pew poll favor “setting limits on carbon dioxide emissions and making companies pay for their emissions, even if it may mean higher energy prices.”

The bottom line is that more people may have doubts about solid evidence or 100-year time expanses on global warming; but majorities believe it is a problem that we should address now. As I said, do not get distracted.

11/30/09 CORRECTION:

The above post described both the Pew poll and the ABC News poll as finding that more Americans thought global warming was a “serious problem” than thought it was happening. This was an accurate report of the Pew poll’s findings, but an inaccurate description of the ABC poll. In the ABC News poll, only those who said they felt that global warming was happening were asked if they believed it was a serious problem. The actual numbers for the ABC News poll, released on November 15, reported 72% of the public believes global warming is happening, and 82% of those people believe it is a serious problem. Apologies and many thanks to Gary Langer, director of the ABC News poll, for pointing out my error.

Nov 23 2009

.25% on each trade can take a giant step for jobs and justice

While over 200,000 Americans lose their jobs each month, the investment bankers and insurance company executives whose reckless behavior caused the crisis are enjoying record profits and over $100 billion in salaries and bonuses this year.

President Obama’s economic team, afraid of offending the offenders on Wall Street, has done little to correct this immoral and economically unsound situation. Two Democratic back benchers in Congress, however, are planning to introduce legislation that requires those who put so many other Americans out of work to dig into their deep pockets to help put people back to work.

Representatives Steve Kagen of Wisconsin and Ed Perlmutter of Colorado have drafted legislation that would place a .25% surcharge on every transaction by stock brokers and investment bankers buying and selling securities, and would use the revenue obtained to fund jobs programs and deficit reduction.

The transaction tax is morally right, economically sound, and badly needed – it will generate $150 billion in revenues that Kagen and Perlmutter would use to create jobs for tens of thousands of our people, working to fix roads and bridges and on other infrastructure needs. The tax will not apply to average investors because it will refund the first $100,000 of transactions annually. It also will not apply to pension accounts, education, and heath savings accounts.

Opponents will still call it a dangerous gimmick that will hurt investors and the economy as a whole. These criticisms fall flat, since the transaction tax already has a record of success. First enacted as part of the Revenue Act of 1914, the transaction surcharge started at 20 cents per share traded and was doubled by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 as part of his plan to save capitalism. Of course, the capitalists objected to the means of their own salvation. But the market did not suffer because of the surcharge from 1932 until Congress eliminated it in 1966.

It is time to bring it back.

The transaction tax will benefit the economy by offering a disincentive to excessive speculation – the buying and selling at a fast pace that produces non-productive profits for investment bankers and incredible risk for investors. The transaction tax may reduce the incentive to make so many trades, and failing that it will at least make high speed, high volume speed traders pay.

The public will be attracted to the bill because it represents one of the few actions the government is taking that demonstrates that it is listening to the average person’s economic frustrations and the sense that our entire system is rigged by business elites and enabled by government.

The New York Times reported last week that the four largest investment firms in New York City – Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, and the investment banking arm of JPMorgan Chase – earned $22 billion in the first nine months of this year, which puts them on track to report record profits for 2009. The Times story, by Zachery Kouwe, was based on NY State Controller Thomas DiNapoli’s report, and claims that “six of the top American bank holding companies set aside $112 billion for salaries and bonuses, including deferred payments in the first nine months.” The banks include Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo.

President Obama could take a lesson from Kagen and Perlmutter – instead of waiting for Wall Street to voluntarily cooperate, take action that will restore some balance to Wall Street practice, much needed revenues, and confidence that the government is listening to America west of Battery Park.

Nov 13 2009

Bishops speak for 9% of Americans, 55% of House of Representatives

Imagine a country in which a small group of religious zealots, run by old men in robes, has an iron grip on the country’s political institutions despite a core following of only about nine percent of the people.

This small but powerful league tries to influence broader public opinion but fails. Nonetheless, it continues to be a force far beyond its numbers for policies that keep women from obtaining rights previously granted by the government, stop the advancement of anti-discrimination laws against gay people, and block other social and health reforms such as educating children about sexual health and distributing condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS and other diseases.

The mullahs in Tehran had better move over and make room for the Catholic Bishops in America.

Our Catholic Bishops represent such a small slice of Americans it is almost incomprehensible to understand why the members of Congress and other government officials buckle under their pressure.

American Catholics make up an important 26 percent of the electorate. But BRS’ polls of Catholics repeatedly show that only about one in three say that they follow the views of the Bishops when they decide who to vote for, and fewer than one in three believe politicians who are Catholic have a religious obligation to vote on issues the way the Catholic Bishops recommend.

Do the math and it seems you can only conclude that the Catholic Bishops represent fewer than nine percent of Americans. Yet the Speaker of the House of Representatives is willing to give way on abortion healthcare services to her fellow women because of the Bishops’ lobby. Last Saturday’s vote in the House limiting abortion services in healthcare won with 64 Democrats and 176 Republicans. That is about 55% of House members, submitting to a group representing 9% of Americans.

Meanwhile, the city of Washington, we learned in Thursday’s Washington Post, is being told by the Bishops lobby that if it wants the larger institution of Catholic services to continue to operate in the city, the government must circumvent its own laws against discrimination pertaining to gay people.

Where will it end? Where are the politicians who give speeches about freeing oppressed people in other parts of the world from religious zealots?

Nov 11 2009

David Brooks is mistaken about what independents want

David Brooks’ op-ed in the NY Times last week was mistaken when it asserted that this most recent election was an indication that political moderates were turning more conservative.

Brooks argues that independents who voted in the elections last week are by definition political moderates, and that the election marks a turning point in this voting bloc toward more conservative views. He says we now know that independents do not want government to help solve the economic problems of the country, and that this will be the prevailing mood going into 2010.

Brooks’ arguments are built on a foundation of mistaken assumptions about public opinion. First, he considers self-described independents as a static group. Pollsters and other political observers know that the label “independent” is taken on and off by voters like a piece of clothing. You cannot assume independents are by default moderates, because their makeup is never the same from year to year. In 2009, we know for sure that many of today’s independents were yesterday’s Republicans.

If we compare the numbers from the Washington Post/ABC News poll in September 2008 to October 2009 we find Democratic identity has stayed about the same, 34% in 2008 to 33% today, Republican identity has dropped from 26% to 20%, and independent identification has jumped from 31% to 42%. Clearly a sizeable number of this year’s independents were Republicans last year.

Second, the shifting of Republicans to independents is the main reason why independents as a group look more conservative. This is not a change of attitudes among moderates, as Brooks concludes. If the Democrats lose voters to the independent category in the future, independents will look more liberal. That will not necessarily mean that moderates are taking more liberal positions.

Third, if you look at elections in between presidential election years, you will see that the non-presidential electorate is always more conservative, Republican, older, wealthier, and more suburban than those who vote in presidential elections. The more privileged among us simply turn out more in these off years. It says nothing, as Brooks argues, about the overall turn of public opinion towards conservatism.

Fourth, current reality runs contrary to Brooks’ contention that political independents are against government action on the economy. How does he explain the huge popularity of Cash for Clunkers, which was the ultimate government intervention into the angry white man’s world – the feds will take your car and pour acid over the engine. Also, most Americans favor better government oversight of Wall Street and some restrictions on executive pay.

What Brooks mistakes for unease with government involvement is public unhappiness with government ineffectiveness. We have not yet seen the result of government actions that will adequately address the 17 percent of Americans – one out of six – who are unemployed, underemployed, or who have just plain given up looking for work.

The public is unhappy that the government has spent so much money bailing out Wall Street and that Wall Street continues to be up to its old ways of risky paper and unseemly pay bonuses for failures. The public mood in 2010 will not be anti-government if it can see results. That is the message from the recently held elections.

Nov 9 2009

Two Obamas on economy spells trouble

Too often it seems there are two Barack Obamas steering economic policies.

First there is Obama the Reformer, who promised during the campaign that he would work toward more respect for the values of responsibility and fairness in the economy.

Then there is Obama the Wall Street Admirer, whose economic team has repeatedly acted like Hank Paulson’s interns, looking for Wall Street’s approval and pretending that it is not the administration’s role to stop policies that encourage the selfishness and irresponsibility that caused our economic downturn.

This identity crisis was in full force this past week on Capitol Hill, and it could turn into a political crisis for Democrats in 2010.

While some of the president’s lobbyists were talking to members of the House and Senate about tighter regulations on banks and other investment companies, the president’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was on Capitol Hill to press congress to exempt public companies from the current requirement that they use independent auditing to ensure they are complying with the law. This requirement is part of the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation of 2002 that was enacted into law as a response to the growing financial fraud in the last decade. Emanuel calls the exemption relief for small public companies, but Washington Post reporter Zachary Goldfarb pointed out that his exemption covered all firms handling under $75 million, about half of all public companies in existence. This is change Wall Street can believe in.

At the same time that Democratic volunteers who believed in Obama’s new politics were going door to door in New Jersey and Virginia, the White House chief of staff was going office to office on Capitol Hill to convince congress to let public companies skirt the requirement that independent professionals check their books. Emanuel succeeded but the volunteers in New Jersey and Virginia did not. Does anyone see a connection?

Emanuel’s victory is the type of activity that not only hurts the economy but knocks the wind out of millions of Americans who hoped – even believed – that Obama would create real change. It saps their faith in him and their confidence in our political institutions.

If the president expects those people who believed in his message of change to be energized in the next election, he needs to keep faith with them. They are looking for only one Obama on the economy.

Nov 5 2009

Tuesday’s election was about governing, not politics

The meaning of voters’ behavior in Tuesday’s elections does not lie in which political party is up and which is down at the moment, but in how government and the people who run it respond to an economy that is ruining the lives of too many people.

Tuesday’s outcomes serve as a cold reminder that the public now grades chief executives in politics – mayors, governors, presidents – according to two questions. Voters ask: 1) Have you done something constructive to deal with the need for jobs and delivery of services in my town or city or state? 2) Do you empathize with us? Do you even know what it is like to get up every day in the dark, walk a mile and wait outside in the cold for the PATH train in Jersey to take you into Manhattan — to a job that you are not sure will be there in six months? Does the person at the top understand anything about what the person at the bottom – or even the person in the middle – is going through, especially now, in this economy?

In Boston, Mayor Tom Menino won reelection on Tuesday to a fifth term. As a Boston Globe editorial this week pointed out, in hard times, Menino has shown a knack for making the city run better, with less crime, fewer divisions and better services than the city enjoyed before. He is also someone who keeps in touch with the people of Boston, understands their needs, and makes a point of showing up places that show his sensitivity to their priorities. Menino passes the grade on both of the above questions. On Tuesday, he won 57-40.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has brought about changes in nearly every part of the city bureaucracy to make it run better. New Yorkers see this and credit him, but they are blind to any empathy he might possess. His imperial style, disdain for those who disagree with him, and his heavy-handed approach to the Constitutional change that allowed him to run for a third term left voters wanting to take Mike down a peg or two. Bloomberg scores one out of two in the above criteria –- and he won by a whisker on Tuesday. His opponent had astute political advice, as his campaign took aim at the crown on the mayor’s head, instead of the stars on his record.

In New Jersey, Governor Jon Corzine is zero for two on leadership. The voters in New Jersey have no idea what he has accomplished, if anything, and they do not feel that he knows anything about their struggles. From his doomed idea to raise fees on the lifeblood of every New Jerseyan – driving on the garden state parkway – to the French cuffs he wears, Corzine has consistently sent the signal to voters that he is a Wall Street guy who makes so much money that he probably doesn’t even know how much property tax he pays, and he certainly does not worry about it. In focus groups we conducted throughout the state this year, voters’ attitudes toward the governor were polite but they asked, “what has he accomplished? We cannot think of a single thing.” They realized he was dealt a bad hand, but the only thing they could recollect about him was his highway speeding accident.

Seeing Tuesday’s election through the experiences in New Jersey and Virginia leads to the obvious conclusion that the electorate is very unhappy, and the most effective way it knows how to express itself is to act out against incumbents. This may only get worse in 2010, as long as we keep losing jobs and President Obama is seen as not taking bold enough action to turn the economy around.

In sum, candidates, parties, and the president need to recognize that now job creation is the first priority of voters, so it should be their first priority. Then they should also take a tip from Tom Menino in Boston. Show that government can do something constructive for people. Demonstrate a capacity to lead, a commitment to find governement solutions, and a compassion for the people you serve. Otherwise, get ready for a very bumpy ride in 2010.

Nov 2 2009

Young people are asking – where’s the party for us?

What if we held a political party and nobody came?

This is becoming increasingly likely if your idea of a robust political party is one that includes 20 somethings or 30 somethings.

We now have historically large numbers of all age groups choosing the label “politically independent” (42%), but the number of independents stands even higher among the younger cohorts.

Just five years ago, six in ten Americans under age 40 called themselves either a Democratic or Republican, and today fewer than half of that age group chooses to align with either party, according to the latest Washington Post–ABC News poll (Oct. 15).

Among 18 to 29 year olds political party identity has dropped 13 points since 2003 (58% to 45%), and has declined 15 points among people in their 30s (from 64% to 49%).

ABC News/Washington Post data

ABC News/Washington Post data

Younger Americans’ reluctance to become members of the Democratic or Republican party does not mean, as some have suggested, that young adults are less active politically, or less likely to be joiners of causes, or less frequent volunteers at community events.

Belden Russonello & Stewart’s work for non-profits shows that younger adults are contributing time and money at a brisk pace to the causes they care about. They are on social networking websites to get involved with issues, and in 2008 young voters were a key component of Barack Obama’s campaign – providing organizational and fundraising support nationwide.

So why are young people losing the motivation to identify as either Democratic or Republican? The parties may be flummoxed, but if Democrats and Republicans are looking for the secret to attract young voters, there are plenty of hints.

  • First, emulate Barack Obama’s leadership: confident, cool, deliberate, and active. Young voters continue to have more confidence in President Obama than do older voters, but this has not fully helped the Democratic Party. The Democratic identity among 18 to 29 year olds is down to 27% from 29% six years ago. Republican identity in the same period has dropped even further among 18 to 29 year olds, from 29% to 18%.
  • Second, do not back off from key positions that are important to young people and that tend to be more liberal than conservative. The younger generation has shown consistently in polls to be more pro-gay rights, more interested in promoting renewable energy as a priority for government, more supportive of a government role in health care and help for the economy, and less supportive of a government role in dictating morality. They are also less tax averse than older voters.
  • Third, focus less on argument and more on solution. Since Ronald Reagan convinced most the country that government could not solve big problems, this idea became associated with political parties. This suited the Republican Party perfectly since it defined itself by its social conservatism and its anti-tax philosophy. The Democrats, cowed by Reagan’s popularity, generally just went along with the idea that government was not part of the solution to problems. Remember President Clinton’s second inaugural speech, in which he stated emphatically, “the era of big government is over.”

Younger generations have been attracted by Barack Obama’s intention to replace Reagan’s society of individualism and freedom, with one of fairness and collective responsibility. In this type of society, government – and political parties – must play a role in solving problems.

In the current climate, young voters might be ready to become Democrats, but they have yet to commit, and their political identity is still up for grabs. Will they become Obama Democrats? Will they become loyal to him but not to his party? Will they become more Republican whenever the Republican Party moves into the 21st century?

As young voters consider settling down with one family politically, right now there is no place that feels like home.