The archetypal American politician works the rope lines at small town parades, shaking hands and kissing babies. Politicians also like to give out tokens of their appreciation to the constituency, party favors and earmarks usually go over well. This is a time-honored ritual that is not without redeeming qualities. Representatives serve at the pleasure, and for the benefit, of the citizens in their districts. Good constituent service, and the ability to remember someone’s name, go along way with the average voter.
Other redeeming qualities long appreciated, have fallen under scrutiny in these volatile times. Earmarks, as an example, used to be a measuring stick for the effectiveness of a member of Congress. The items now derisively referred to as pork-barrel spending are nothing more or less than targeted line items; projects in the district that allow federal taxes harvested from the area to return to the area. Having spent some time looking at earmarks myself, I have seen some crazy ones. But most voters would be surprised at the rather mundane and mostly reasonable list of projects completed with federal tax dollars. Far from the vagaries of the main body of the federal budget, earmarks represent transparent spending that is easy to track and evaluate.
On August 31, 2010 the last American combat troops will leave Iraq. Many thousands will remain in advisory and security roles well into 2011. Over 4,700 American soldiers, sailors, and Marines have died in the conflict, with between 97,000 and 106,000 Iraqi civilians dead as well. The strictly human toll is the most important, which is why I list it first. The toll paid by our nation in money and material, while less important, is equally startling.
It includes the $900 billion of US taxpayers’ funds spent or approved for spending through Sept 2010. Some $9 billion of US taxpayers’ money and $549.7 million in spare parts shipped in 2004 to US contractors are listed as lost and unaccounted for in Iraq. An amount totaling $1 billion in tractor trailers, tank recovery vehicles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and other equipment and services provided to the Iraqi security forces are missing. $10 billion, per Feb 2007 Congressional hearings, was wasted or mismanaged. There are $1.4 billion in Halliburton overcharges classified by the Pentagon as unreasonable and unsupported. $20 billion was paid to KBR, a former Halliburton division, to supply U.S. military in Iraq with food, fuel, housing and other items. $3.2 billion of that $20 billion paid to KBR, are for charges Pentagon auditors deem “questionable or supportable”.
TARP, Wall Street, big banks, investment banks, car companies, Stimulus, housing bubbles, Fannies & Freddie, deficits, exploding deficits, extended unemployment benefits, lions, tigers, and bears…oh my! I really don’t blame folks for screaming; “What the heck is going on!” In answer to all of this complexity, some news outlets and politicians have “simplified” the situation for us common folk. In their words, the bailout and stimulus, TARP and other measures are all the same deal. And, in the common refrain of our time, they are all President Obama’s fault.
Of course, some of this is the responsibility of our current president, while some of the “blame” goes to the previous president. It is my contention that most of this activity was necessary and effective, if not always executed with the greatest efficiency. Our economy is in a bad way now, but it would have been much, much worse. I think it is critical that we explore these issues, because the policies that made them necessary are threatening to make a second pass. The story of the Great Recession is a story of Americans spending a great deal of money without getting much of substance in return.
“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship.”
Aaron Sorkin’s vision of a presidential speech is beloved by many liberals and progressives, but the two sentences above are truths for all Americans. Rights are always paired with responsibilities. The boundaries between one individual’s rights and those of another are always blurred. In the constant search for balance, injustice is inescapable. We see this reality in many familiar guises; life versus choice, free ownership versus gun control, and free speech versus offensive speech. This week’s big news highlights a fourth major front, national security versus transparency.
The Wikileaks disclosure of 90,000 classified documents relating to the Afghan War has stirred the debate to life. As with all of these debates, vocal partisans have lined up on each “side”, ready to advocate for their absolute positions. On one side, the notion that the security establishment is entitled to control the flow of information; once a document is classified, any breach threatens national security. The opposite side disputes that notion, advocating instead for transparency in and around the application of deadly force. Truth, the transparency advocates are apparently arguing, will set us all free.
With all of the talk about bias in the media and the decline of American journalism, I think it is important to point out how difficult it is to decide what to cover. Sports is easy; just print box scores and stories that summarize the games from major professional sports and the local high school and college events. The opinions flow from previous games, upcoming games, or upcoming seasons. To be certain, there is garbage in our sports coverage now, mostly as a result of writers doing their best to keep up with the hyperbole of ESPN. News, and politics in particular, have become a very different animal.
The difficulty with covering our democracy lies in the difference between actual actions and behind the scenes maneuvering. The House of Representatives is in almost constant activity, operating as they do without the procedural encumbrances of the Senate. The House actually votes on issues, and majority rule directs the outcome. The Senate, at least in view of the public, works on one or two issues at a time. In today’s climate of Republican obstructionism (that isn’t a political label, it is a fact), bills take months to reach an up or down vote. The space in between is filled by commentators, ex-politicians, and opinion-makers who prognosticate and pontificate on what is really happening. Writing or producing a story that accurately summarizes the major facts of a given issue boils down to figuring out which voices to record, and which sources to believe.
President Obama has been attacked for and accused of a pantheon of offenses. It seems that every step he takes is an offense. But this post isn’t about bemoaning his ill-treatment. Non-stop criticism and micro-back seat driving are part of the territory when you are the leader of the free world. When Presidents meet with their successors after the election, topics like these inevitably come up. Only a president can truly understand what the next one is up against. President Bush undoubtedly reminded then President-elect Obama of these realities when they met.
What President Bush could not prepare President Obama for, was the apparent new standard for presidential behavior and actions. Make no mistake, President Obama is being asked to live up to a different set of standards in his term, both legislatively and in the operation of the Executive Branch itself. The important questions are twofold; first, is it fair to criticize the President for handling functions in the same manner as his predecessors and second, should any one of the new standards represent a new norm for presidential behavior?