Friday, September 28, 2012

The Problem with Polls

According to the latest polls, the election is all over. President Obama leads in all battleground states. In some of them he has an unassailable margin of nine points.

There are a couple of polls that show a different race. Rasmussen and Pew show the race much tighter. Rasmussen has the race essentially tied over all with Obama having a slight lead in some swing states.

It is easy to dismiss these polls as outliers, especially since Rasmussen himself is a noted conservative. has a Rasmussen-free version. But before we do that let's remember the history of polls in tight races.

In 1980 pollsters declared the race too close to call. Reagan won by a landslide. He won so decisively that the election had been called before the California polls had closed.

That was a long time ago. For a more modern example, look at 2004. Democrats went to the polls sure that John Kerry would win easily. Instead Bush won by a decisive margin. Even in Ohio where the vote was close, Bush's margin of victory was large enough that there was no automatic recount.

Rasmussen called that one. He and Pew were also the closest to the actual results in 2008. So, they must be taken seriously.

Some conservatives are calling "foul" on the other polls, alleging that they are being manipulated to make Romney supporters loose faith. Liberals are calling this unfounded conspiracy theories.

So, what is going on? Part of the problem is that polling had gotten harder.

In a year with high-turnout, less than 2/3s of the population votes. If there is a low turn-out then barely half of the population votes. Democrats lead among apathetic voters so the first thing that a poll must do is try to winnow out the likely voters from the registered ones (and eliminate unregistered voters completely).

The next problem is in getting an even sample. During the 2004 race it was noticed that Kerry did better in polls taken during the week and Bush did better in polls taken over the weekend. A close look at the number showed that the percentage of Democrats in the polls was higher during the week.

There are ways of compensating for sampling errors. If you know that Democrats make up 1/3 of the population but are 1/2 of the group polled then you need to adjust the result.

This is where the conspiracy theories come in. Every poll that shows Obama with a significant lead has a disproportionately high number of Democrats in the sample. Currently the country is split nearly evenly between Democrats and Republicans with the Republicans having a slight advantage for the first time ever.

But recent elections have complicated this. For a long time voter affiliation was a fairly constant percentage at the polls. That changed in 2006 and 2008 when record numbers of Democrats voted. The result was that the Democrats took over both houses of Congress (2006) and the White House (2008). In 2010, fewer Democrats turned out but more Republicans voted. The Republicans took the House and made significant gains in the Senate.

The polls that favor Obama are based on the assumption that the mix of Democrats and Republicans in 2012 will be similar to 2008. This assumes that Obama's name on the top of the ballot was the driving force for a Democrat turn-out.

Republicans point out that in 2008, having a black man on the ballot was a first and many people turned out just for the privilege of voting for him on that basis. In addition, Obama was the candidate of Hope and Change in 2008. Now he is just another political hack trying to hold onto his job. The excitement that brought people to the polls in 2008 is gone and people registered as Republicans is at an all-time high.

Democrats insist that the voter turn-out in 2010 was much less than in a presidential election and that the only reason the Republicans did so well was that Democrats were dispirited and stayed home. A lot of energy has gone into increasing voter turn-out so the mix will be closer to 2008 than 2010.

Both arguments are valid and neither one requires ill-will on the part of the pollster.

Another factor is that more people have dropped land-lines in favor of cell phones (technically "mobile" phones). Pollsters are prohibited by law from calling these phones. The people who only use cell phones are younger than the general population and skew Democrat (the old rule of thumb is that people start out idealistic and liberal and become more realistic and conservative over their lifespan). Different pollsters have ways of adjusting for this group but none of them are satisfactory.

A final factor is that polls present three choices - Obama/Romney/Undecided. There is no "undecided" box on the ballot. People who say that they have not decided often stay home or have already decided to vote for the challenger but do not want to admit it to a pollster. Any state where Obama has less than 50% should be considered in play no matter what his lead is.

So, the election is still too close to call. Michelle should wait a few weeks before buying her inaugural dress.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Rating Obama

Slate has four criteria that make a good president.

Political skill: Campaigns give us a good idea of a candidate's priorities, but can they read the political landscape they'll face when they get to office? Are they honest enough to win voters' trust but ruthless enough cut a deal with their enemies when necessary? Are they comfortable with the schmoozing, backslapping, and ego-massaging that comes with the job?

Management ability: Is the candidate focused enough to follow an overarching vision, but nimble enough to tweak that vision when real-world events intervene? Can they admit mistakes and learn from them? Can they sift through complex ideas? Can they recognize baloney when it comes from their staff or supporters? Do they know how to hire a good team?

Persuasiveness: Do they know how to deliver a good speech? Do they know when to stay quiet? Do they know how to read public opinion? Is it possible for a president to short circuit Congress by taking an issue directly to the people?

Temperament: Has the candidate ever faced a true crisis? Do they have the equanimity to handle the erratic and unpredictable pressures of the office? How are they with uncertainty?

How does President Obama stack up?

Political Skill: Woodward's new book The Price of Politics gives several examples of how poor the President is at deal-making. During his first two years his policy was "F--- the Republicans, we have the votes!" After losing the house in 2010 he never came up with a workable strategy. Woodward says that Reagan and Clinton each had extensive congressional outreach and liaison programs. Even a first-term congressman might get a call from the president. In contrast, Obama has no outreach. Even committee heads can't get their calls returned by the White House. Some of the most powerful men in Congress are not sure that the President knows their names.

Management ability: All of the insider accounts of the White House say that it is a mess. There is no organization. cabinet members feel bullied (especially women in the White House). Obama is very poor about admitting mistakes. He tends to blame everything on someone else, usually Bush. When terrorists attacked the Libyan consulate on 9/11 and killed four Americans including the ambassador, he claimed that it was a spontaneous demonstration over a movie. He blames the Bush tax cuts for the deficit even though he supports making most of them permanent (which makes them the Obama tax cuts).

Persuasiveness: This should be Obama's strong point but his speeches get less effective every time he makes one. Reagan was a master of appealing to the electorate to put pressure on Congress, a skill that Obama failed at. At the Democratic National Convention he was rated as the third best speaker.

Temperament: Obama shies away from hard choices - things like entitlement reform. He did order the death of Osama bin Laden but there are reports that he cancelled similar operations earlier in the year at the suggestion of his political adviser, Valery Jaret. When told that the Libyan consulate was under attack and the ambassador missing, he went to bed.

It is hard to imagine a person less suited to being president. Even White House insider books written by fans and admirers of the President admit his failings.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Meaning of Free Speech

The initial reaction to the attack on the Libyan consulate and the Egyptian embassy was misguided. The Egyptian embassy made a post to Twitter that essentially apologized for an obscure anti-Muslim movie that had been produced in America. This was followed by condemnations of the movie by the President and Secretary of State. They even bought air time in Pakistan to show ads disavowing the movie. In addition, the producer of the movie was taken in (at midnight) for questioning on possible parole violations and the government asked Google to consider removing the trailer for the movie.

The biggest problem with this response is that the attack in Libya which killed four Americans appears to have been an outright terrorist attack on the anniversary of 9/11 and not a reaction to a movie.

Regardless, the whole point of freedom of speech is that it is only free if people are able to say objectionable things. No one ever tries to stop people from saying things that they agree with. This is best illustrated by the quote attributed to Voltaire*, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

It took two weeks but President Obama finally got this sentiment right, at least in part. When addressing the UN he had this to say:

"Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views — even views that we disagree with," the president said. Without such freedom, he said, individuals might be stopped from practicing their own faith; "efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics or oppress minorities." He concluded: "Given the power of faith in our lives and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech."

This raises the question of what Obama actually believes? Does he actually believe that it is wrong to restrict speech or is he just reading words from a teleprompter? How does he reconcile this view with his earlier attempts at restricting speech?

* According to Wikipedia, this quote was actually written by a biographer of Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall as an illustration of Voltaire's beliefs. Regardless, it summarizes of freedom of speech better than any other quote.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Press and the Election

Four years ago there was an email list called the JournoList which allowed members of the Obama campaign to coordinate their message with members of the press and decide on strategies for neutralizing the McCain campaign. While that was closed down, something has replaced it. There can be no doubt that most of the press is actively supporting President Obama over Governor Romney. This can be seen in the priority that is given to different stories and the tone of the reporting.

For example, look at the reporting of Romney's "gaffes". Months ago Romney was asked what cars he and his wife drive. He mentioned "My wife drives a couple of Cadillacs." This is still being referred to as if any admission that he is rich is a major mistake.

Last week Romney criticized the tweet from the US embassy is Egypt which stood for hours after the embassy attack and seemed to apologize on behalf of America for offending Islam. This was given almost as much coverage as the attacks themselves complete with detailed timelines showing when different statements were issues and allowed to be made public. Much was made of the fact that the tweet was unauthorized and eventually taken down. President Obama was quoted as saying that Romney "shoots first and aims later". No one mentioned that all statements officially issued by an embassy are assumed to be official US policy and that the whole issue shows a breakdown in the chain of command within the Obama administration.

Later that day Obama told Telemundo that Egypt was no longer an ally but is not an enemy. This was an actual gaffe. The term "ally" has a legal definition and Obama seemed to be saying that we were no longer recognizing Egypt's official status as an ally. This would have major repercussions in trade and arms sales. The State Department had to "clarify" the remark saying that Egypt's status as an ally has not changed. In other words, Obama had no idea what he was saying. This got almost no coverage.

The Obama administration has been caught lying and covering up about the attacks and the slaying of Americans. They continue to insist that the attacks were not directed at the US but were nothing but understandable outrage over the trailer for an amateurish movie that insults Islam. The governments of Egypt and Libya say that the incidents were outright attacks, especially the deadly attack in Libya. There was no protest, just an attack by radicals.

This has barely gotten any coverage. Instead the press has been covering a recording of Romney addressing a private fundraiser. The recording is heavily edited and was probably illegal to make under Florida law.

NBC has not bothered to fact-check the administration statement that the attacks were caused by the video but they immediately fact-checked Romney's statement that 47% pay no income taxes. This turned into a disapproving editorial with the reporter pointing out that white people on Social Security are "Romney supporters".

There have been various stories about the Romney campaign being in disarray but the Obama campaign has major problems of its own. According to "Obama's Last Stand" put out by Politico, Obama's top campaign officials are barely on speaking terms. Having Clinton (a former president) nominate Obama was unprecedented and a sign of desperation but no one reported it that way.

Even reporting the polls is slanted. New polls are coming out daily but the ones that get covered are the outliers - the ones showing Obama ahead by the most points. These are often the most questionable with an oversampling of Democrats.

The goal of all of this is to portray Romney as unfit to be president, to minimize Obama's many mistakes, and to give the impression that the race is already over and Obama has an unassailable lead.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Obama and Polarization

I bought Woodward's new book on President Obama yesterday. While the focus is on the debt crisis, it starts with the first negotiations between the Congressional leaders and the President-elect over the stimulus.

In their first meeting everyone insisted that they believed in a bipartisan effort to help the nation. Afterwards the Republicans formed a working group which consulted with people outside Congress. At the second meeting they presented their alternative proposal. President Obama looked it over and said that everything in it was doable. He and the Democrats had two problems with the document. One was that it was all tax cuts. The Democrats did not want to give money back to people to spend. They wanted to control how it was spent. The other problem was that it called for cuts in spending elsewhere to pay for the tax cuts. The Democrats wanted to spend more money, not redistribute spending.

Note that from a Kensian viewpoint, targeted tax cuts are just as valid as additional spending. What matters is putting more money into circulation.

This was a crucial moment. Obama had high poll ratings. He could have disappointed the more partisan members of his party and incorporated some of the Republican ideas into the stimulus. Instead he reminded them that "elections have consequences" and that he trumped them.

That was it for bipartisanship. The Democrats decided that they did not need Republican votes so they cut the Republicans out of the process completely. The Republicans could not even get a single amendment to the legislation.

As a result, the Republicans voted unanimously against the bill. The last Republican hold-out planned on voting for it until he realized that his district in New Orleans would receive 1/3 as much money as the average district.

The Democratic narrative for the last three and a half years has been that the evil Republicans decided to vote against Obama in an effort to hurt his presidency. Woodward's account shows that Obama began the hostility, that he was the one who never had any intention of reaching across the aisle to the other party.

It also shows how poorly he works with members of his own party. At one point he called Nancy Pelosi's office and made a long speech. After a while Pelosi muted the phone and went back to work, ignoring Obama completely.

And I am only up to chapter four.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

About that Romney Tape

Jimmy Carter's grandson was offended at some statements that Romney made about his grandfather so he convinced someone to release recorded sections of a private Romney fund-raiser. The big reveals from it are that:

  • Romney believes that Obama has 47% of the vote locked up because of people who feel dependent on the government. The Obama campaign has made a similar calculation. Their "Life of Julia" pitch was aimed at these voters. Romney made the observation that you cannot attract people who do not pay income tax with an offer of tax cuts.
  • Romney believes that the Palestinians do not really want peace. After a serious attempt at negotiation the Bush administration came to believe this also. It is hard to argue that a group that includes the destruction of Israel in its constitution is committed to peace. Obama came to office believing that if the Israelis only made some major concessions that the Palestinians would return to the peace talks. So far he has been disappointed.

While this has been compared to Obama's "bitter clingers" speech, it is not on the same level. Unlike Obama, Romney has stood behind his words although he admits that they could have been phrased better.

The press is trying to make a big deal out of the speech but the real test is if the Obama campaign finds a way to use it against him. If we do not see the equivalent of the "You didn't build this" ads coming from Obama then it is not an issue.

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Bad Week For President Obama

You might not know it from the Mainstream Media but President Obama had a terrible week last week. Here are some of the things that went wrong for him:

Libya and the Protests: This was the first time since 1979 that an American ambassador has been killed on the job. The Obama administration looks weak and unprepared. They are also giving inconsistent responses about advance warning. Ambassador to the UN Rice says that it was a spontaneous event. The Libyan government says that it was planned. This makes Rice's statement look like a cover-up.

The White House is also insisting that the protests are against a movie instead of the United States. This ignores reality. Radical Islamists regularly search western culture for things to spark outrage. If they hadn't found the movie they would have found something else. The proof is in the date of the embassy attacks - September 11.

The Response: The consistent response to the killings from the Obama Administration has been, at best, tepid, "You have every right to be angry but you should stop short of killing people." This has not calmed the protests. Instead it makes us look weak. It comes close to an apology.

Shooting First: Hours after criticizing Romney for shooting first and aiming later, Obama said that Egypt is no longer an ally but not an enemy. Egypt has a legal status as an ally which grants it many trade concessions. The State Department had to clarify that Obama was not revoking this status and that Egypt is still an ally.

The Economy: The Fed announced a program known as QE3 that will keep long-term interest rates down. Economies that are in recovery do not need stimulus programs. Worse, QE3 has no end date. It will be continued until the economy recovers. This means that the Fed thinks that there is no real recovery in sight. A stimulus program is supposed to act like CPR - short term measures that will lead to a self-sustaining recovery, not life support. The response to this admission was that the country's credit rating was lowered from AA to AA-.

The Teacher's Strike: Chicago's teachers went on strike against Obama's former Chief of Staff, Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel wants some teacher accountability. National unions see this as a line in the sand and are urging the union to hold firm. The teacher's union, the NEA is one of the Democrats' biggest and most consistent supporters. If they lose this contest they are likely to take their frustration out on Obama.

The Polls: Obama got a bounce from the Democratic National Convention but it was short-lived. He is back to his pre-convention numbers in which he is ahead but within the margin of error. Worse he is below 50%. Traditionally the undecided voters break for the challenger. They already know the incumbent. If they were going to support him they would have already decided. If you assume that Obama will lose any state where he is polling below 49% then Romney not only takes all of the undecided states, he takes most of the "leans Obama" ones and wins with a healthy electoral majority.

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Part-Time President

Barack Obama probably puts in less time as President than anyone in recent history. Multiple accounts such as The Obamas say that he has a hard commitment for dinner with the family several times a week. After 6 pm, he is off-limits except for special events and emergencies. He also plays golf more than any other president. He bowls. He plays basketball. For his 50th birthday he spent hours planning his party which included a basketball tournament between teams of politicians and professional players.

He is also reclusive. Even when he was a senator he and his wife decided that they would not make any friends in Washington because everyone there has an agenda.

This has repercussions. He skips daily security briefings, preferring to read the reports by himself. Congressional leaders complain that he does not return phone calls. Other presidents used a round of golf to get legislation passed, it was a major news event when Obama played a round with House Speaker Boehner.

Even on the campaign trail, Obama is stingy with appearances. Every other presidential candidate shares the stage with local candidates. With Obama, people are lucky to get a shout-out.

This is catching up with Obama. The White House insists that daily security briefings are unnecessary because "he doesn't need someone to read the reports to him like Bush did." This is like asserting that reading text books is the same as attending college lectures.

Most other issues are handled the same way. The President reads some briefing notes alone at night. If he objects to something then he makes a few notes or simply writes "no". If there are no notes then he agrees.

The economy is not improving. Job creation is worse than in 2011. Obama's economic policies are not working. He has handed responsibility for the economy over to the Treasury Department and their strategy has been to lower interest rates in the hope that businesses will use the money to expand. Right now interest rates are so low that companies can borrow from the government and buy short-term government bonds which pay at a higher rate then pocket the difference. With rates so low, banks cannot make any money lending and individuals cannot live on their savings. The result of all this is an economy where Wall Street is taking advantage of cheap money to get richer but not doing anything to help the rest of the country.

A more ambitious president would fire his advisers and look for a new approach. That is what Bush did when the Iraq war seemed unwinnable.

His preparations for September 11 are part of the pattern. His last security briefing was September 5th. With an important anniversary approaching that is known to be associated with terrorist activity, the President could not be bothered to meet with his security advisers. There are reports that the government had 48 hours warning about the embassy attacks. Did this reach the President? If so then why didn't he react? Did he even read the warnings?

Contrast this with Mitt Romney. When he took over the Olympics he assumed that they had a public relations problem that could easily be fixed. He expected the job to take less time than Bain Capitol so that he could spend more time with his wife. Instead he found an organization that was failing on all fronts. So he did whatever it took. He put in 100+ hour weeks. He missed spending his 30th anniversary with his wife. When he finally cut back, it was to 80 hour weeks.

Any that was just running the Olympics, not the country. He could have quit. Instead he worked hard and looked for solutions. The result was a successful Olympics.

Does anyone seriously think that Barack Obama would have done that? Would Obama have spent every waking hour saving an organization? Or that his wife would allow it? (Anyone who says "yes" needs to go back and reread The Obamas).

Regardless of what you think about their respective policies, Obama is not putting in the effort needed to be a successful president and Romney will.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Who Won the Conventions?

Most of the post-convention coverage was about how much more excited the Democrats were than the Republicans. By this measure (getting the press excited) the Democrats won, hands-down. Since the press do not elect the president, no matter how much they try, we have to look at other measures.

Keep in mind that the conventions were aimed at different demographics. The Democrats wanted to rev up their base. They need a big turn-out from youth and minority voters in order to win. These groups turned out in record numbers in 2008 but show every sign of dropping back to indifferent participation numbers.

The Republicans were trying to attract undecided moderates. Romney spent the primary season courting the party base. If they are not excited about him, they are at least resigned and excited about beating Obama. Romney needs the swing voters to win.

The Democrats had a red-meat convention. They trotted out activists, mayors and ex-presidents. They were also in a smaller hall which amplified cheers.

The Republicans trotted out rising party superstars. Regardless of who wins this election, the next Republican candidate probably got prime-time exposure at this convention. The Republicans had an orderly convention. They always have an orderly convention. The last time there was any real excitement at a Republican convention was in 1976 when what was to be a short demonstration in favor of Reagan after he was nominated lasted 20 minutes.

Both Romneys gave good speeches. Ryan gave a good speech. His was so good that partisan fact-checkers pounced, elevating quibbles to lies. Clint Eastwood stole the show and gave what is still the most talked-about speech of either convention.

By most accounts, Obama gave the 3rd best speech of his convention (a minority put him 4th after Biden). Michelle got top marks and Clinton came in second. A close examination of Clinton's speech shows that he seems to be unaware that Obama is running against his economy as much as Bush's. There are also places where Clinton praises Obama for traits that he does not ahve but Clinton did (cooperation with the other side).

The Republicans had to deal with the threat of a hurricane but otherwise the convention went smoothly.

The Democrats had several unforced errors. A fight over the party platform turned ugly and reminded the public about how far the Democrats have moved to the left. Obama was originally going to present his acceptance speech in a stadium with extra seating to accommodate the 80,000 that he had four years ago. At the last minute the speech was moved to the convention hall. The stated reason was the threat of rain. There was speculation that the real reason was that they could not fill the stadium.

The real measure of a convention was how much they helped their candidate. To evaluate this, I looked at Rasmussen. Unlike other polls (see above about the press electing the president) Rasmussen has a good record of identifying likely voters and not over-sampling Democrats. He showed each candidate getting a post-convention boost. Romney took the lead for a few days from the end of the Republican convention until part-way into the Democratic convention. Obama took the lead after Clinton's speech and held it for a few days.

Now that the conventions are over, neither candidate has a lasting bump but Romney seems to have made the most gains. Before the conventions he was down by four. By today he was ahead but only by one point.

This is bad news for Obama. Neither candidate is polling over 50%. Traditionally the undecided voters break for the challenger. They have had four years to get to know the incumbent. If they have not decided for him by now they never will.

Two things will still affect the election and neither favors Obama. One is the debates. Obama was a mediocre debater in 2008 and he has not debated since then. He personally detests Romney which might make him prone to gaffes. Romney held his own or won against such intellectuals as Gingrich. He has a strong opertunity here.

The other factor is external events. The economy is hurting Obama. Stories about stimulus money being wasted are beginning to come out. Multiple countries are having violent protests against the US with four US citizens already dead. Romney is able to stand to the side and snipe which is why the reaction was so strong to reasonable statements about the attacks on two embassies.

So, coming out of the conventions, neither candidate gained a clear advantage so we are in for a long, nasty campaign.

Thoughts on the Embassy Attacks

Over the last few years we have added a footnote to the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.*

*Unless it offends Muslims in other countries.

The sensitivity to not mocking other people's religious beliefs seems to be limited to Muslim beliefs. No one complained when the anti-Mormon Angles in America won awards.

Attempts to tie the embassy attacks and deaths to an anti-Mohamed movie overlook several factors. Before the fuss, very few people in the US even knew of this movie. According to news reports, it had one free showing and only ten people watched. Very few news reports have mentioned that the movie trailer was translated and has been shown in Egypt constantly since July. Who has the real blame, the people who made an obscure movie or the ones who showed it to millions in foreign countries?

I am having trouble finding a transcript of President Obama's speech from the Rose Garden. My impression at the time was that he repeated the assurance that his administration is against ridiculing anyone's religion but killing people is going too far. It seemed like he was agreeing with the Egyptian Embassy tweet. That is the tweet that Romney condemned and that Obama later said had not been authorized.

There is a lot of speculation that the attacks were coordinated efforts rather than spontaneous. Was there any sign of this in the national security briefings? According to a Washington Post column posted Monday (the day before the attacks), the President has skipped more briefings than he has attended. Other reports say that he had not been to a security briefing in a week. Was there anything about plots to attack American embassies in the documentation he was provided? Would he have ordered the embassies to be better protected if he had attended the meetings? Granted that this is an order of magnitude different from 9/11/2001 but I am still seeing articles about warnings issued to the Bush administration. If it is fair to ask if Bush could have done more 11 years after the event then it is fair to ask of Obama could have done more while attacks are still happening.

The press turned on Romney for issuing a statement about the Embassy tweet. Two reporters were caught on an open mic saying that the entire press pool was prepped to ask the same questions. The tragedy is a public relations disaster for Obama but the press has turned it on Romney. Obama in 2008 and Kerry in 2004 were making statements about ongoing events without any questions from the press. Why is Romney held to a different standard?

Obama made a statement about Romney "shooting before he aims" and saying things before he has all of the facts. Obama admitted that he had to learn not to do this himself. Since he did this at least a few times after taking office (remember the "beer summit"?) this trait does not disqualify someone from being president.

Obama said that the perpetrators would be brought to justice. It is very difficult to find members of a mob. Is this an admission that the attacks were part of a plot?

Obama admitted that Egypt is no longer a friend but is not exactly an enemy. Many conservatives have been waiting for the Arab Spring to blow up in Obama's face. There are parallels with the Iranian revolution. What started as a populist rising against a corrupt, pro-American government was taken over by anti-American Islamists. In 1979 the American embassy staff was taken hostage. This time multiple embassies have been attacked and four members, including the ambassador, killed. Does this represent a failure of Obama's policy of "leading from behind"?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Democrats and Prejudice

Over the weekend the AP ran one of the inevitable "does racism hurt Obama?" articles. I found this part interesting:

"We're at a tipping point," said Susan Glisson, director of the Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. "But I don't know which way we're going to tip."

Glisson knows that many conservatives disagree with Obama solely because of his policies. "But I am also quite certain that there are others who object to the president because of his race, because they have a fear of blacks that is embedded in our culture," she said.

Her conclusion is based on something called "implicit bias"— prejudices that people don't realize they have.

Here's the thing - the article is a prime example of implicit bias from the left. They are positive that Republicans must be racist so they look at every word and every action for proof. With no explicit examples, they are left with code words.

"Every time they say, 'We want our country back,' I know what that means," Susan Bankston, a white Democratic National Convention delegate from Richmond, Texas, said at the gathering last week.

"You recognize it when every time the Republicans with their own convention refer to him by his first name, Barack Obama. He's President Barack Obama," said Patt Sanders, a delegate from Englewood, Calif., who is black.

These are prime examples of using a double standard. Phrases like "wanting our country back" were thrown around freely during the Bush administration. The Clinton inauguration in 1993 carried the theme "Taking back America". Similarly, I don't remember anyone who disliked Reagan, either Bush, or Clinton using his full title.

A lot of this comes from expectations and associations. Republicans oppose the progressive agenda. Since the agenda is so obviously good for the country and the world, then they must oppose it because they are evil. Racism is evil therefore anyone who is evil must also be racist.

There is also some history involved. For decades, Democrats have insisted on treating minorities (and voting blocks) as groups and used strict quotas to enforce equality. Republicans have opposed quotas, arguing that people should be judged as individuals instead of by the group they belong to. The Republicans are for examining issues on a case-by-case basis which Democrats argue it too time-consuming. Again, since Democrats regard quotas as the only useful tool for enforcing equality then Republicans must be racists for opposing them.

Once this implicit bias was established then it is fair game to examine every Republican action for racism.

Ironically, the Republicans are not the party of racism. Segregation in the South during the first half of the 20th century happened in a time when Democrats were the dominant party. Democratic governors opposed rather than helped the Civil Rights movement. The first desegregation of schools and the military came about under Eisenhower (a Republican). It was not until the mid-1960s that civil rights became part of the Democratic coalition (although black voters had been part of FDR's coalition).

Four years ago the Obama campaign assumed that many people would not vote for a black man and ran ads to downplay his race. They stressed that his mother was born in Kansas and that he was raised by whites. The sub-text was that he is a white man with dark skin. This does not speak well of the Obama campaign's opinion of his supporters.

Before we started using terms like "implicit bias" we called this prejudice: pre-judging. When Alec Baldwin tweets, "If Obama was white, he'd be up by 17 points" he is not basing this on any historic analysis. Given that the economy is doing better than at this point under Carter or Bush (41) but not as well as under Reagan, Clinton, or Bush (43), Obama's numbers are right where you would expect them to be - too close to call. To say otherwise, Baldwin has to ignore Obama's actual performance and ascribe negative motives to anyone who disagrees.

The paradox here is that the Republicans see the Democrats as "playing the race card" while the Democrats see themselves as being neutral.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Are you better off?

During the 1980 debate Ronald Reagan asked the audience, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" He went on to defeat President Carter. Four years later Reagan asked the same question and won in a landslide.

The Obama people knew that this question was coming but when reporters started asking it a week ago they seemed to be taken by surprise.

It actually is more complicated question now than in 1980 or 1984.

In general the country is better off. Four years ago the economy was failing. Major banks and brokerage firms were on the verge of going bankrupt and taking the economy down with them. GM and Chrysler were in serious trouble. The economy was shedding jobs instead of creating them

Today the banks and brokerages are on more solid footing although Bank of America is still in serious trouble. GM went through a government-backed bankruptcy and closed several of its divisions. The remaining pieces are doing better but still face serious long-term problems. The economy is creating jobs but at a sluggish pace that does not keep up with population growth. Unemployment is higher than four years ago and would be even higher if you take into account the underemployed and people who dropped out of the workforce.

In summary, things are not getting worse but they are not improving very fast, either. That is not much of a reelection slogan which is what is giving the Obama campaign so much trouble.

But the question is not, "Is the country doing better?", it is "Are you doing better?"

The majority of the country has been continuously employed for the last four years so the unemployment rate does not affect them directly.

Nearly everyone who owns a house is poorer today than four years ago. For most people, their biggest asset is their house and housing values continued to fall will into this year. There is some indication that housing prices may have finally hit bottom this Summer and that demand is increasing. On the other hand, I have seen predictions that a new round of foreclosures is coming this Winter. If that happens then home prices will drop again.

Gas prices reached a high point four years ago then dropped, going from over $4/gallon to $2/gallon within a few months. They are back up near $4/gallon.

Food prices are up. even before the drought they were rising. Part of this is because of the mandate that a large portion of the corn crop be turned into (expensive) auto fuel. Other prices are up, also. Wages have not been keeping up with inflation.

Interest rates are at a historic low (except for credit cards). If you have money in the bank it is losing value. The Fed hopes that low long-term interest rates will stimulate growth. So far this policy has failed.

So most individuals are not doing quite as well as they were four years ago.

There is a related question to "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" - "Could the economy have been handled better?" Reagan had to cope with a double-dip recession and higher unemployment but at this point his economy was creating jobs several times as fast as the Obama economy. Obama spent most of his first two years concentrating on health care instead of jobs. He was over-reliant on short-term Keynesian fixes to solve long-term problems. And, he has put ideology ahead of prosperity.

The fact that reporters are asking "Are you better off?" is a string indication that the nation does not feel better off. For a president who promised to stop the oceans from rising to admit that fixing the economy is hard and will take longer than he thought is an admission of failure.

The final question is the most difficult for Obama, "Could Romney handle the economy better than Obama?" Voters will express their opinion in November.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

About those jobs by president numbers

It has been a talking point for Democrats recently that since 1961, more jobs were created under Democratic presidents than Republican ones. Wikipedia has the numbers. Does that mean that we should trust the economy to Democrats?

The methodology deserves some comment. The chart figures jobs created according to two measures. The one that the Democrats are using subtracts the number of people employed in January of a president's first term from January of his successor's first term. The second set is the same as the first except it uses September instead of January. This reflects the fact that it takes time for a president's policies to have any effect.

There are problems with this approach. The Wikipedia article mentions that Congress, not the President, controls spending and has at least as much influence on the economy.

Something that is not stressed is the size of the workforce. There were fewer than 54 million people in the workforce in 1961. By 2012 that number had grown to 132 million. While a job is a job if you are unemployed, figuring jobs added as a percentage of the workforce is a more realistic figure. It takes less than half as much additional economic growth to add new jobs today as it did in 1961. If you look at that then the top job creator moves from Clinton (2.52%) back to LBJ (3.90%).

The biggest problem with this measure is that economic downturns happen regardless of who is in office. If a downturn is going on at the beginning of a president's term then his numbers are depressed. You can see this with several presidents. The deeper the recession the more jobs have to be created just to break even. The Obama people insist on only counting the last 29 months. If you look at January, 2009-January, 2012 then he lost jobs.

A more realistic, long-term view of the workforce can be gained by looking at the chart at the bottom of the Wikipedia article. You can see it blown up here. This gives a completely different view of the workforce. Starting in 1939, the workforce has grown fairly consistently punctuated by short down-turns. The general rate of growth has been consistent although it picked up a bit in the 1980s (the Reagan years) culminating in the tech bubble crash in the late 1990s. The 1960s look so good because there were no appreciable downturns to offset normal gains.

If you look very carefully then you can see that job growth since 2000 fell off. The high point around 2007 should have been higher and come later. More important, job growth since the low point has been almost flat.

The conclusions that we can draw from this:

  1. Downturns happen
  2. Until the last couple of years the workforce grew at a consistent rate no matter who was in the White House.
  3. Job growth picked up slightly during the Reagan years.
  4. Job growth under Clinton went back to historic levels but went longer between downturns.
  5. Job growth under George W. Bush receded to the 1960s level and had one of the shortest periods of growth since 1939.
  6. Job growth under Obama has been the slowest since record-keeping began in 1939. It would be interesting if this chart went back further but I think that is as far back as reliable figures go.
Prior to the Obama administration, job growth continued regardless of which party was in the White House.

The first two days of the DNC

I haven't watched the entire Democratic convention, just the prime-time portions. Even then there have been long portions that I did not pay attention so this is just a general impression. On the other hand, I was watching CSPAN instead of commercial coverage so I saw the actual convention instead of talking heads.

Michele Obama was clearly the best speaker on Tuesday night. She described her husband as someone who makes the hard choices instead of leaving them for others. Why isn't this guy on the ticket? He would be a big improvement over Obama.

This was probably Clinton's last big political speech so he made the best of it. It seemed like he was never going to stop talking. At one point he brought up the factoid that more jobs have been created under Democratic presidents than under Republicans. He is justified in bringing this up since half of the gains in the Democrat column were under his administration. On the other hand, using the same methodology, Obama has only create 300,000 jobs instead of the 4.2 million that his campaign likes to claim. Regardless, it is a stretch to call for reelecting Obama because we had large job growth under Clinton.

At one point Clinton talked about cooperation between the parties being important. Was he giving this as a reason for reelecting Obama or as an excuse for why Obama has failed?

The Democrats love to say that Romney plans to give tax breaks to multimillionaires while raising taxes on everyone else. This comes from a study by the Tax Policy Institute. They have backed away from this conclusion. They point out that Romney has only given generalities so they made some assumptions about what deductions would have to be cut to stay revenue-neutral. By those standards, Romney falls short. There is nothing in Romney's plan that calls for a tax increase and his campaign complains that the Tax Policy Institute does not take into account the stimulus effects of flattening the tax code. After spending the last week accusing Ryan of lying, the Democrats are playing pretty loose with the facts.

Outside of that, most Democrats are avoiding the fact-checkers by making statements to outrageous that no one bothers to check them. Former Ohio governor Strickland said that Romney was Santa Claus he would "fire the reindeer and outsource the elves."

Elizabeth Warren was given a plum spot leading in to Clinton. There was some speculation that she would deliver a speech comparable to the one Obama gave in 2004. Nope. What she said was disjointed and partisan. This speech may not even help her senate run.

Wednesday got of to a terrible start when it came out that their platform had dropped all references to "God" and to Jerusalem being the capitol of Israel. The Democrats are insisting that this was an oversight. Hah! Last month it was treated as a gaff when Romney referred to Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel. When asked where the capitol is, the Obama administration refused to answer. The text was probably removed at that time. The Democrats' real feeling were shown by the difficulty they had in getting enough votes to put the text back in. If it had been an oversight then it would have been a formality to put it back in. Instead it took three votes before they had enough votes. Even then there were boos.

Obama planned on accepting his nomination in a stadium as he had four years ago. At the last minute this was moved to the convention hall. There had been reports that the Democrats were having problems filling the (rather small) stadium and were resorting to busing people in. Was the change really because of the weather (current forecast, cloudy) or because they were not going to be able to fill the stadium? It does not matter which is true. The fact that there is any question shows the drop in enthusiasm from four years ago.

There were two striking differences between the Republican and Democratic conventions. The first was the tone. The Democrats were much angrier than the Republicans. From the tone of the speeches you would think that Romney was the incumbent and Obama the challenger. The Republicans were trying to appeal to moderates and undecided. The Democrats seemed to be aiming their speeches at the party faithful. Can you convince an undecided voter by claiming that Romney is un-American for having some foreign bank accounts?

The other difference is which party is forward-facing. The Republicans allowed several party stars to give prime-time speeches. These are the guys who will be running in 2016 or 2020 and the Republicans let them introduce themselves to America. The Democrats featured activists and former presidents. I cannot imagine any of their speakers making a serious run for president. I have trouble picturing most of them on the stage at the last several Democratic conventions. This enforces the impression that the Democrats, not the Republicans, have abandoned the middle and are becoming increasingly more radical.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

How Obama Became President

On the eve of President Obama's second nomination it seems like a good time to look back at how he became president in the first place.

Dinesh D'Souza touched on this in 2016. The first black president was never going to come from the civil rights movement. Those leaders only appeal to a limited audience and their implied message to white America is "you are racist". When Jesse Jackson ran in the 1980s he was asked if he was a black man who happened to be American or an American who happened to be black. Jackson admitted that he was black first and American second. Many pundits acted as if that was the dumbest question ever but the President of the United States needs to represent all Americans, even if he is a member of a minority.

Enter an obscure candidate for the Senate with a strange name. The first I heard of Barack Obama was the announcement that a "black Democrat who isn't afraid to talk about God" was going to give the keynote address in 2004. It was a magnificent speech. Obama talked about what unites us instead of divides as a country.By the end of the speech many people wished that he was leading the ticket instead of John Kerry. The speech gave Obama the reputation as a great speaker and an aura that is still with him. The Daily Show took this literally. They showed footage of the Senate's first session with Obama having a halo. He was going to be the great leader who would bring us out of the wilderness of George Bush. For the next few weeks the press hung on Obama's every word, expecting Solomon-like wisdom to drip from his lips.

At this point, all that most people knew about Barack Obama was from his keynote speech. Regardless, that and his early opposition to the Iraq war was enough to launch his presidential campaign.

More of Obama's background trickled out. We learned about his father who returned to Kenya while Barack was a child, leaving him to be raised by a white mother and grandparents. In fact, this was stressed as was their Kansas roots. It didn't matter that his grandparents moved to Seattle while his mother was very young. The idea was to make Obama seem less alien. The message that his campaign delivered was, "Yes, he has dark skin but he was raised by whites. He isn't threatening."

The big appeal was that you could feel virtuous by voting for someone with dark skin but he shared your values.

It helped enormously that Obama was a blank slate. He never hid the fact that he was a progressive but that term had fallen out of favor for years so most people had no idea what he meant. Even Libertarians who had become disenchanted with the Republicans after eight years of Bush's big-government policies saw Obama as a pragmatic centrist.

The election was not a sure thing for Obama. Hillary Clinton began the campaign with much more money and a better organization. She also did much better in general elections, especially in large states. And, as the first serious woman candidate, voting for her also made people feel virtuous.

Obama's candidacy was saved by two things. Clinton made a serious miscalculation and assumed that she would have the nomination wrapped up after Super Tuesday. As it turned out, she was ahead but not enough. Obama still had some campaign funds left so he could continue his campaign while Clinton had to suspend her campaign long enough to raise more funds. Just as important, the next string of primaries were mainly caucuses which favored Obama. By the time Clinton was back in the race Obama had run up a long list of primary wins that gave him an aura of inevitability.

The primaries ended without a clear winner. Clinton argued that more people had voted for her since she had won nearly all open elections and she had won every primary that she had seriously contested. It didn't matter. Obama had more delegates and just seemed inevitable. By then, school children were signing anthems to Obama.

No one cared that he was still in his first term as a Senator or that his autobiography makes it clear that he had been a Marxist. The only crisis came when sermons from his church became public. At first Obama claimed that he had no idea that the Reverend Wright had ever said such things. Eventually he passed the incident off as being racially-based and gave a speech in which he claimed that his grandmother was afraid of black men. After that, any mentions of his radical associations was treated as yesterday's news.

No one really cared who Obama really was. They just wanted the buzz that came from voting for the man they envisioned him to be.

Now, the Democratic National Convention is trying to resurrect that image of Obama the Redeemer. Will voters allow themselves to be swept up in the excitement again or will they see Obama as he really is - someone who is highly partisan and ideologically to the left of the vast majority of the nation?

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


We went to see 2016: Obama's America over the weekend. After all of the anti-Bush movies of a few years ago my wife wanted to see one from the other side.

I was familiar with the premise of the movie from columns that director Dinesh D'Souza has written but I was still surprised, and a bit pleased, at how they were presented. This is not a Michael Moore movie which mocks its targets and is really about Moore rather than his subject matter. D'Souza uses his background in India to shed light on Obama's upbringing. In doing so, D'Souza never upstages his subject.

The movie has four parts. The first is D'Souza's own biography. He explains what his life would have been if he had stayed in India and how he quickly rose from a foreign college student (at an Ivy League college) to working at the White House.

The second part covers Barack Obama's life prior to becoming famous. D'Souza's focus is on the anti-colonialism that Obama's mother embraced and how prevalent it was in Indonesia and Hawaii during Obama's childhood. He shows how his mother painted a picture of his absent father as a giant in the fight against colonialism and what a shock it was for the younger Obama when he found out that his father was not the man he envisioned him to be. This part ends with Obama's visit to the graves of his father and grandfather.

Along the way, D'Souza talks with Obama's half-brother who lives in a tiny shack. The younger Obama is an author on is own and believes that Africa's problems are not the making of white oppressors. He points to various former colonies that are doing well. 

The third part explains how someone with Obama's radical background could have been elected president. D'Souza makes the point that an angry black leader from the equal rights movement could never be elected president because he carries the implied accusation that all whites are racist. Obama's appeal was that he was a blank slate. Obama discovered at an early age that his manner made people want to do things for him.

D'Souza's predictions for the next four years may be the title of the movie but they get the least time. D'Souza believes that Obama will disarm America through reductions in our nuclear arsenal and will allow the Muslim world to unite in a United States of Islam.

So, how compelling is D'Souza's theory? He makes a strong case but it has one weakness. Marxism and anti-colonialism are joined at the hip. Many of the influences that D'Souza cites are as much Marxist as anti-colonial. D'Souza gives examples of Obama's "strange" behavior as proof of his anti-colonialism but some of these could have different or multiple explanations. Nuclear disarmament has been a goal of the left for decades and Obama's desire to reduce the US nuclear capacity is probably rooted in this rather than a desire to weaken America. The Left reflexively prefers the Palestinians to the Israelis so there is no reason to look deeper into that relationship. Obama may be trying to spend the nation into ruin but he is known to read Paul Krugman's columns regularly and Krugman insists that the recovery has been so weak because we did not spend enough. If we spend another two or three trillion then the economy will recover enough so spectacularly that we can pay off that enormous debt.

Obama has done some actions that reflect anti-colonial attitudes. His dislike of Churchill is the most prominent of these. To most Americans, Churchill was the war leader who stood up to the Nazis. To Obama, he was the oppressor of Kenya.

What cannot be questioned is that the blank slate who was elected in 2008 was far more radical than he appeared. Thomas Sowell wrote a column where he points out that in Obama's autobiography, he never looked for dissenting opinions. He was convinced of his views at an early age and never associated with anyone who would challenge them.

Any they called George Bush an incurious president.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

The Empty Chair

During the Republican National Convention, Clint Eastwood had a conversation with an imaginary Barack Obama in an empty chair. During the exchange the real President Obama Tweeted that "This chair is occupied."

Actually, it isn't. Obama gave up trying over a year ago when he announced that he would release a new jobs program as soon as he got back from his August vacation. What he eventually released was totally unacceptable to the Republicans as he knew it would be. He started leading chants of "Pass the bill" even before any bill had been introduced to Congress. The whole exercise was nothing but a cheap attempt to score political points against the Republicans.

That has been the President's mode of operation ever since. He stopped trying to perform his duties as President. He spends all of his time and effort trying to win reelection. The chair of President of the United States and leader of the Free World has sat empty.