Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama's 10 Greatest Transition Disappointments

NEW YORK, New York -- Barack Obama is to be sworn in tomorrow (make that today -- it's early, early in the morning now), and this is a good thing.

I put in a few weekends of hectoring sometimes-hostile Pennsylvanians to do my part to get Obama elected. I am fully, fully convinced that America picked the best of all the candidates running at any point in this election. And I'm cautiously encouraged that something like 75% of Americans now support Obama, a show of moving national unity.

But at the same time, in the past two months the coverage of Obama has been almost worryingly positive. From time to time, it seems almost to justify Fouad Ajami, who wrote days before the election that the messiah-like status Obama can be argued to have taken on was somehow un-American, that it was more evocative of the Middle East he grew up in during the 50s and 60s. That region then dipped from one would-be redeemer Arab nationalist to another, with Egyptians and others taken with the charisma of men like Nasser and duped wild dreams of what they might do for them. The unspoken connection is that the American people should be more self-reliant than to look for deliverance -- economic, social, or otherwise -- from a politician.

Sing, Muse

Mr. Ajami's probably overstating the case a bit -- great hopes do ride on President-elect Obama, arguably too great, but in times of great difficulty, the public has swooned for Roosevelts (T. and F.D.), Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and (here's looking at you, Alex P. Keaton) even Reagan. Nonetheless, I think the Legionnaire and I, though openly supportive of Obama, will gladly take up Mr. Ajami's challenge and do Tocqueville some justice. It's exactly when someone's popularity is at its height that we must be most vigilant (as Alan Greenspan failed so stupendously to realize).

So we'd like to christen the Obama presidency with a list of the Obama Transition's Top 10 Disappointments:

10. Inexperienced military man may head NASA: At a moment when the existence and success of NASA hang in the balance as seldom in the last 45 years: with the emergence of a host of wannabe space powers (China, India, Japan and Europe), with both Russia and China outwitting the US in gaining valuable commercial business (not to mention international goodwill and dependencies) in launching satellites, warnings of a "perishable" American lead in space, and with NASA riven by infighting and soon to be reliant on Russian rockets as it retires the shuttle and dithers about what comes next while the military and intelligence services want a piece of NASA -- at a moment, in short, when NASA can either become a better-funded organization by expanding a mandate to work commercially and internationally or grow more inward and militarily focused -- Obama is reported to have chosen Major General Jonathan Scott Gration, a lifelong military man with no experience at NASA. We don't need military thinking or unfamiliarity with space and rocket science here. Not now. Mr. Obama, America hopes these rumors are unfounded. Pick a capitalist-minded NASA man or scientist.

9. Wall street donor with no car experience may be car czar: Steve Rattner, head of private equity firm Quadrangle and a big-time Democratic donor, is rumored to be tapped to be Obama's "car czar."

Rattner has no experience -- as in ZERO experience -- in the automobile or manufacturing industries. Manufacturing is still about 15% of the US economy, and auto is its crown. And, given the fall of finance and the unsustainable trade deficits facing us, manufacturing and auto-making will only grow in importance, if we're lucky. Now, if you're going to put one person almost singlehandedly in charge of rebuilding the auto industry and the billions in government money that will take (and already has taken), wouldn't it be nice if his experience went beyond buying up movie studios and being part of the leverage orgy that got us into this mess, as Slate asks? Even the normally stoic Bloomberg thinks Rattner would be a disaster. Not to mention that Detroit will be automatically suspicious and resentful of any Wall Streeter who comes in telling them why they don't know their own trade. Obama, you're a masterful politician. Think like one here.

8. Obama nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack: This is a place where Obama has failed to bring change to a post that was ripe for it. (It's also one of three traditionally neglected Cabinet posts that should have become as important as they deserve to be but continue to be neglected. See below for the other two.)

Why is the Agriculture Department ripe for change? Well, although many voices from the center, south and west of the United States are always vigilant about any government interference in any aspect of life, many of the residents and businesses of these regions benefit from the most egregious warpings of free trade and government interference that, if it were transposed to television (by better funding, say, a PBS science-focused network to finally offer people smart science programming where the Discovery Channel and Discovery Science have so failed) would create outrage in these very constituencies.

Three areas of the economy that we allow government to run roughshod over are infrastructure, which is normally publicly owned but might be better served by public-private partnerships; water, which is wastefully used in the West, where rivers and lakes are dying because of a publicly subsized thirst for precious water resources by farms and unsustainable cities (what privately owned water utility would ever give Las Vegas golf courses water?); and agriculture, the biggest source of market-distorting government subsidies in America, and one of the biggest WTO complaints against the US.

Additionally, the Department of Agriculture has for years been little more than a lobby for big industrial farming conglomerates. They're given handouts of cash and allowed to run almost unregulated. While America's farms are one of its largest sources of exports and the most productive food-producing concerns in the world, the big industry farms that dominate sales are incredibly wasteful, feed people unhealthy food, and are actually one of the most socialist industries in the country.

As Nicholas Kristof said last month, when more than one-third of Americans were farmers 100 years ago, the Agriculture Department made sense. Today, when fewer than 2% of Americans farm, it doesn't. What we all do, however, is consume food; and broadening and restoring the Agriculture Department into a Food Department would have been the true "change" play.

An interesting pick -- though no doubt a problematic one given his lack of managing a large organization -- would have been the writer Michael Pollan, who has also spoken of the need to shift the Ag Dept into the Food Dept.

So why doesn't Tom Vilsack appear to be on the cusp of reforming the Agricultural Department in 21st-century America's image?

Well, Vilsack is a major supporter of arguably the dumbest use of farmland ever to be implemented outside the Soviet Union or Maoist China: corn ethanol.

Additionally, Vilsack has proven himself to be a staunch defender of genetically modified food, which, while extremely profitable, cooler heads might argue should be treated skeptically until the jury has definitively spoken in favor of its safety.

Finally, and perhaps the most nakedly disturbingly, Vilsack has directly benefited from the US's agricultural subsidies to the tune of $40K+. Why did this not come up during his hearing, where, as the LA Times reports, he "sailed through" apparently promising ever more ill-conceived subsidies?

7. Obama nominee for Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar: OK, this isn't just another department that's traditionally treated as unimportant. It's an unbridled wreck. It's 10,000 times more corrupt than Agriculture. For crying out loud, it's so corrupt that there was barely a stir when it was revealed that Interior officials were taking drugs and sex from the oil companies they allegedly regulate.

It's gotta be hard not to improve this beast, right? I'd say so, but Salazar seems like a pretty crappy pick -- and it's not (just) the annoying cowboy hat. As the Legionnaire is out in Salazar's home state of Colorado, I'll let him speak at greater length if he chooses. But, given the mandate of the Interior Department to protect the United States' flora and fauna -- as it was envisioned by conservationist-extraordinaire Teddy Roosevelt -- it's quite disheartening, for starters, that Salazar threatened in the 1990s to sue the Interior Dept if it put the black-tailed prairie dog on the Endangered Species List.

But much more importantly, as the New York Times reported last month, Salazar appears to be a pushover harlot to mining and fossil fuels interests (just like almost all Interior Secretaries -- why the F&$# can't any president name a competent, serious person to this post who does what the job entails rather than fully undermine it? If nobody else wants it, give it to me).

Salazar has pushed for legislation to make it difficult to sue mining concerns and to allow oil and gas drilling in Colorado. His statements about the misguided notion of "energy independence" absolutely miss the mark as we thought only Sarah Palin could. Salazar thinks it somehow helps the US if we drill more oil, failing to realize that 1) US oil peaked in 1973 and will never again be a majority of the oil we use; 2) oil is fungible, so when the US drills more and uses more, it pushes up prices on the world market, enriching Iran and Venezuela; 3) fossil fuels cause global warming and while we all would like to live in Palm Springs, this is a bad thing.

The answer, of course, is to seek energy independence via alternative fuels. But that's too nuanced, perhaps, for Senator Salazar. Anyway, we'll shut up now and let his colleagues speak for him.

Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, released this statement upon Salazar's nomination: “Nothing in his record suggests he’s an ideologue. Here’s a man who understands the issues, is open-minded and can see at least two sides of an issue.”

Daniel Patterson, a former official in the Interior Dept's Bureau of Land Management and current Colorado legislator: “Salazar has a disturbingly weak conservation record, particularly on energy development, global warming, endangered wildlife and protecting scientific integrity. It’s no surprise oil and gas, mining, agribusiness and other polluting industries that have dominated Interior are supporting rancher Salazar — he’s their friend.”

6. Naming Leon Panetta to head the CIA: This is pretty well-publicized. His lack of experience seems galling for someone at so important an agency. Panetta has his supporters, and he may well turn out to be an inspired pick. But he's on the list (and at #6) because if it doesn't go well, it'll be a disaster. Playing with the CIA is like playing with matches.

5. The fifth columnism of Obama nominee for Secretary of Energy Steven Chu: As chronicled in an earlier Walter Duranty post from January 15. Never good when accomplished scientists start saying they support "clean coal." Or the Tooth Fairy.

4. Obama's choice of mega-pastor Rick Warren to provide his inaugural invocation: Not only is this bloated televangelist a vehement homophobe, but as the also-bloated Christopher Hitchens notes, he's got a touch of the anti-Semite to him as well as the anti-Mormon. And he propagates the black-and-white anti-evolution views that retard the development of science and generate hostility to modernity in America.

Maybe you don't like gays, Jews, Mormons, or nerds. But can you really say that someone who openly disdains all of them should be giving the invocation at the inauguration of the president who seeks to represent the inclusiveness of America and govern for the entire nation?

Let's keep this short. Barack, WTF?

3. Amnesty for Bush: This seems like a simple one. We were lied into a war. There should be a truth panel for this (see Yale Law's Professor Jack Balkin for more). And if crimes are revealed, nobody can ever be above the law, as Paul Krugman argues here and Dalia Lithwick here.

2. Obama nominee for Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood: This is indeed the #2 greatest disappointment.

The Transportation Department has traditionally been a back-burner agency (the third one, as mentioned above). Perhaps that's why our country is unparalleled in the developed (and much of the developing) world in its astouding lack of mass-transit options. There is, effectively, no commercial train travel, depriving regional economies (the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Florida, Midwest, California, Northwest all could benefit) of a powerful engine of commerce and trade. Subways in big cities are underfunded and disgusting. Almost nowhere can you take good public transit to the airport. Airports and ports are a mess.

Things need to get done, in short. Transformative transportation policies could be a major driver of US business. The kind of US business that isn't selling Chinese crap at Wal-Mart, outsourcing banking jobs to Mumbai, or giving people NINJA mortgages. The kind of business we need if we want to revive the economy in the long-term. Investing in mass transit would improve the economy's efficiencies and logistics to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars; encourage and grow regionally based economies; and create demand for high-tech, expensive products like trains and light-rail that would be best made in Detroit.

Moreover, moving from highways to transit-based infrastructure would create huge demand for transit-oriented development. Just as the exurbs empty as a result of the financial crisis, gasoline volatility, increasing traffic congestion and aging Boomers looking to scale down their homes as well as younger people wanting to live out the urban "Seinfeld" life, there's a huge opportunity to build new, dense communities around new transit hubs: rail, light-rail, and subway -- a construction trend which could help house prices find a bottom, or at the least create construction jobs. With all these opportunities to make transit transform, and as the guy who'll have a big part in doling out the tens of billions of stimulus bucks marked for infrastructure, the transportation secretary should be an important player.

Enter Ray LaHood, a second-tier House Republican known for being a friend of Obama. Oh, and for being a notorious earmarker, as the Legionnaire recently noted. Indeed, LaHood has taken many contributions from paving companies (aka the mob), exactly the kind of 1950s infrastructure we need to move away from. And, as the Post reports, he's gone hat in hand for federal money to provide hundreds of thousands to a local Illinois cemetery to repave its paths. Hmm. Sounds like we have Jimmy Hoffa for Transportation (and they look slightly alike too).

So is this the guy who's going to be able to direct public and private partnerships toward building a comprehensive national high-speed train network? Dramatically expand light rail and transit-oriented development to reconfigure decades of suburban sprawl across the country? The person who will fix the chronic airport backlogs and plane delays? Fix Mike "Heck of a Job, Brownie" Brown's destruction of FEMA?

I somehow doubt it. (So do The New Republic and the cutting-edge media crew at Worldchanging.) No need to pick a token Republican when there's real work to be done at the Dept of Transportation. Time will tell what LaHood is able to do, but there's real work to be done and this guy is part of the congressional establishment that for years hasn't done a damn thing.

1. The stimulus package is shaping up to be a non-stimulating raft of rebate checks for people who won't spend them: This one deserves its own post (yes, again). We'll save it for Inauguration Day.


  1. All good insights, but technically FEMA is in the Department of Homeland Security. I don't know much about Janet Napolitano, but anybody would be better than Michael "Skeletor" Chertoff.

  2. Time will tell if Vilsack is up to the task of Ag Secretary. Of equal or greater importance is his history of lack of transparency and ethics.

    Dixie Burkhart
    Facts Don't Matter