Sunday, June 22, 2008

Obama's "achievements" and "brilliance"

Below is an example of how a clever lawyer can make a virtue out of Obama's total lack of significant achievements so far. He obviously has a hard job of it -- "suspecting" achievements where there are none. He refuses to acknowledge that Obama's law review appointment was just affirmative action and no indication of merit -- and goes downhill from there. There is no indication otherwise that Obama was "brilliant". What about Obama's grades? He has not released them despite requests. The author is a highly regarded Australian/British trial lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson. He is of course generally Left-leaning. That he makes such a poor job of selling Obama as brilliant is, I think, instructive. Like Obama himself, it's all flash and no substance

As a brilliant student, the Democratic candidate became the first black editor of the influential Harvard Law Review. What does volume 140 reveal about his future career? If Barack Obama is elected president of the United States, it will be the result of another presidential election back in February 1990. At that time, 80 of his Harvard classmates chose him to be the first black scholar to edit their law review. That instantly brought him to national attention, with articles in the New York Times and other major papers, a book contract and 700 job offers from all the best law firms. He was a mature student of 28 at the time and, after graduation, worked for several years as a community lawyer before ascending the greasy pole of Illinois politics. What does this period of his life foretell?

There are very few back issues of the Harvard Law Review available in the UK. I tracked down volume 140 on a deserted floor of the Middle Temple library, above the amazing Molyneux globe that guided Sir Walter Raleigh to the New World. It was unthumbed and weighed in at 1,964 pages, comprising learned articles, students' case notes and book reviews, with many thousands of footnotes. The university law review is an American phenomenon that has no parallel in our lazier and less academic law schools: the notion of an elite group of students determining the focus of contemporary legal thinking would cause apoplexy in Oxbridge common rooms. But in the US, law reviews are important in shaping the law, and Harvard's is the most important of all.

Hence the newsworthiness of Obama's election. Never before had there been a black editor-in-chief. "The fact that I've been elected shows a lot of progress," he said at a press conference. "But you have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds of thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don't get a chance," he said, alluding to poverty or growing up in a drug environment. It was a worthy beginning, and earned him an affectionate imper sonation in that year's Harvard Law Revue ("In Chicago I discovered I was black, and I have remained so ever since").

The 1990-91 legal term was an unsettling and unsettled time. Justice William Brennan, architect of Supreme Court activism (such as the New York Times v Sullivan case, a foundation of US press freedom), had just retired, and Obama's volume begins with a tribute to him from Thurgood Marshall, the court's first black justice. William Rehnquist now held the reins, and Ronald Reagan and George Bush appointees were in the majority: the candle of liberal juris prudence, burn ing bright in classrooms inspired by the phil osophy of Ronald Dworkin, was beginning to gutter.

Volume 140 is full of civil liberties issues (Obama had been an editor of the previous year's Civil Liberties Review) and full of apprehension lest Dworkin's moral theories should cut no ice with the conservatives on the Supreme Court. The first major article (solicited, it was noted with surprise, from a non-Ivy League professor) analysed the philosophy of Vaclav Havel, and argued that his "individual responsibility" approach might be better suited to protecting free dom than Dworkin's appeals to individual rights. Volume 140 exhibits a refreshing interest in foreign cases (some Republican justices regard the citation of UK court decisions as tantamount to treason), and there is a contrast between the views of Stephen Sedley QC on the need to censor hate speech and the American Civil Liberties Union's support for the right of racist utterance.

Rhetorical genius

Barack Obama leaves no byline in this volume [i.e. he wrote nothing as far as we can see], but as president he was responsible for selecting the topic of the major student disquisition: a 180-page analysis of the need for new laws to protect the environment. Introduced with quotations from Chekhov, U Thant and the Grateful Dead, it appears prescient today: it was produced long before climate change became topical and its advocacy of "green helmets" and extraterritorial law enforcement against corporate polluters is more relevant than ever.

It is tempting to detect the young Obama's hand in a few of the many unsigned articles and book reviews. There is a scathing dismissal of a book by Roy Grutman, a great courtroom advocate ("Money is what makes his legal world go round"), reminiscent of Obama's later comments that the law "is a sort of glorified accounting that seems to regulate the affairs of those who have power". And I strongly suspect his contribution to the last and best article in volume 104, entitled "Talking of unconscionable niggers".

This is an acidic review of a biography of Frederick Douglass, the slave who became a formid able orator for abolition and later a respected public servant (the title is a quoted reaction to Douglass's modest request to be paid for his services). The review notes how most white abolitionists (including Abraham Lincoln) were opposed to equal rights for freed slaves, and severely criticises the author (a white historian) for failing to notice black women. This is not an admission that Obama - who was shortly to marry Michelle (she had graduated from Harvard before him) - could readily forgive.

Obama himself graduated with the legal world at his feet. He could have taken a highly paid job at a prestigious law firm, or a year's clerkship with a Supreme Court justice [Would any justice have had him? It has been said that none would], followed by an even higher-paid job. Instead, he returned to community work for a small firm in Chicago that specialised in housing, welfare and employment and that paid him a modest $167 an hour. For all his rhetorical genius, he never tried a case, preferring the solicitor's work of researching briefs and preparing witness statements. His clients were whistleblowers and non-governmental organisations anxious to use the law to assist the registration of voters who were poor and black and mainly Democrat. In 1996, Obama was elected to the Illinois state senate, although he continued to lecture for 12 years on constitutional law as a visiting professor in Chicago. By all accounts, especially those of his students, he was an outstanding teacher.

There is one abiding mystery about Obama's legal career. Although (as his books attest) he is a fine writer, he never put his name to any article, anywhere. But it was a time when the very ambitious had become very cautious: Robert Bork had been denied Supreme Court confirmation on the strength (in fact, the weakness) of his earlier writings, and the mysterious David Souter passed muster only because he had written nothing that Democrats on the Senate's judiciary committee could sink their teeth into (to Republican fury, he turned out to be a closet liberal). Perhaps young Barack decided to leave no hostages to fortune in a career trajectory that could take him to the Supreme Court - or to the White House. Or perhaps he was too busy with his humble work in and for poor commu nities to bother about reshaping a legal system that he had come to believe would inevitably serve the powerful.

Ironically, it is that system which is most at stake in this election. George W Bush leaves a bloc of four dyed-in-the-wool conservatives seated for many years to come on the Supreme Court of nine judges. Three of the remaining moderates (Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and Souter) are likely to leave in the next few years. "Gentleman John" McCain has promised to appoint strict constructionists, judges who will find no constitutional bar to executing juveniles, or limiting abortions or abolishing habeas corpus. The fate of liberal jurisprudence hangs once again in the balance - as it did, in 1990, for the president of the Harvard Law Review.

Barack Obama's legal career never took off, for all its historic promise at Harvard. He turned his back on the glamour of trial attorneyship and the megabucks of a prestige partnership, preferring to help house the poor. That may have been the result of careful calculation, as the quickest way to a political career. Or it may simply be that Barack Obama, despite being a lawyer, is a really good person.


Obama's Lame Claim About McCain's Money

Obama says McCain is "fueled" by money from lobbyists and PACs, but those sources account for less than 1.7 percent of McCain's money


Obama announced he would become the first presidential candidate since 1972 to rely totally on private donations for his general election campaign, opting out of the system of public financing and spending limits that was put in place after the Watergate scandal. One reason, he said, is that "John McCain's campaign and the Republican National Committee are fueled by contributions from Washington lobbyists and special interest PACs." We find that to be a large exaggeration and a lame excuse. In fact, donations from PACs and lobbyists make up less than 1.7 percent of McCain's total receipts, and they account for only about 1.1 percent of the RNC's receipts.


Sen. Barack Obama declared June 19 that he would not accept public funds for his general election campaign and would instead finance it entirely with private donations. Or, as he put it, with money from "the American people." He thus will not be bound by the spending limits that would have come with taxpayer money, and he will be legally free to spend as much as he can manage to raise.

A Lame Excuse

However, the first of the two reasons he gave for his decision doesn't square very well with the facts. In a video recording sent to supporters, Obama said:

Obama: We face opponents who've become masters at gaming this broken system. John McCain's campaign and the Republican National Committee are fueled by contributions from Washington lobbyists and special interest PACs.

To say that either the McCain campaign or the RNC are "fueled" by money from lobbyists and PACs is an overstatement, to say the least. Such funds make up less than 1.7 percent of McCain's presidential campaign receipts and 1.1 percent of the RNC's income.

McCain - As of the end of April, the McCain campaign had reported receiving $655,576 from lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That is less than seven-tenths of 1 percent of his total receipts of $96,654,783. His campaign also took in $960,990 from PACs, amounting to just under 1 percent of total receipts. The two sources combined make up less than 1.7 percent of his total.

RNC - The Republican National Committee has raised $143,298,225, of which only $135,000 has been come from lobbyists, according to the CRP. That's less than one-tenth of 1 percent. It also took in about 1 percent of its receipts from PACs, CRP said. Taken together, that's about 1.1 percent from PACs and lobbyists.

Obama's Advantage

It's not our place to comment on the wisdom or propriety of Obama's financial strategy, except to note that it is perfectly legal and also that McCain and Obama both refused to accept public funds or spending limits during the primary campaign.

We also note that Obama's decision - whatever may have motivated it - is likely to give him a big financial advantage over McCain in the weeks just before the November election. This is a reversal of the historic pattern, in which Republican candidates have nearly always been able to out-raise their Democratic rivals. Had Obama accepted public funds, as McCain is expected to do, both candidates would have been limited to spending $84.1 million, all of it from taxpayers. But Obama has shown the potential for raising and spending much more.

The Obama campaign already has raised $265 million through the end of April, more than two-and-a-half times as much as McCain has taken in. Figures for May are due out soon. The Obama campaign said on May 6 that it had surpassed 1.5 million individual donors, and it probably has many more than that by now. All of those primary donors are legally free to make new contributions to finance Obama's general election campaign, which officially commences after he becomes certified as the Democratic party's nominee at the convention at the end of August.


Hugely destructive Obama tax policy

Sen. Barack Obama has a bad idea for "extending the life of Social Security." He has proposed applying the Social Security tax to incomes above $250,000, in addition to the current tax on incomes up to $102,000. It's unfair, he explained, for middle-class earners to pay Social Security tax on "every dime they make" while the very rich pay on "only a very small percentage of their income."

Reporters cited the Obama statement without asking for the logic behind having someone making $100,000 pay on every dime and someone making $250,000 pay on just 41% of income, while someone making $10,000,000 would pay on 98.5% of income. There is no economic principle or theory of tax law that would endorse such a result.

Sen. Obama's logic is fairly obvious, although it hardly makes him an exemplar of the "new politics." The $100,000 to $250,000 group is a targeted voter demographic, and he really didn't want to sock them with a 12.4 percentage point hike in their tax rate. But, as Sen. Obama himself noted in his June 13 announcement, just 3% of workers make more than a quarter-million.

Neither Franklin Roosevelt, who started Social Security, nor the intervening three dozen Congresses thought they were imposing an "unfair" system on the middle class. There is a very good and principled reason why Social Security taxes are paid on just $102,000 of income: Benefits are calculated based on that same $102,000 of income.

The fundamental principle of linking taxes and benefits was established when Roosevelt designed Social Security. He wanted to make sure that it was not a welfare system, calling Social Security "a base upon which each one of our citizens may build his individual security through his own individual efforts." His instincts have generally proved sound. Had Social Security been considered "welfare" rather than a return on taxes earned, it probably would never have had the popularity or the staying power that it has enjoyed for the last seven decades.

Although the formula connecting benefits to tax payments or "contributions" has evolved slightly over time, it still adheres to this basic message. Today, what Social Security terms a "low-wage" worker will pay (in present value terms) $77,197 over his or her lifetime and get $112,261 in benefits. A median-wage worker earning $42,000 will pay $171,550 and get back $187,085. A "high-wage" worker making $67,000 will pay $274,480 and get back $245,085.

Under the current formula, lower-wage workers get a slightly better deal than do higher-wage workers, assuming the same life expectancy. But the principle remains that as workers' wages rise so do the taxes they pay, and so do the benefits they will get from the system.

Sen. Obama would do away with this principle by requiring higher-end workers to pay taxes without getting any extra benefits linked to their higher contributions. This would be a big step toward turning Social Security from a contributory pension scheme into just another welfare program.

The economics of what Sen. Obama is proposing should be at least as troubling. A high-income entrepreneur would see his or her federal marginal tax rate rise to 53% from 37.7% under Sen. Obama's tax plan. He proposes a 4.6 percentage point hike in the personal income tax rate, a loss of some itemized deductions, and a 12.4 percentage point hike in the Social Security payroll tax. This would take a successful entrepreneur's effective marginal tax rate higher than what it was under Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon, when the maximum tax on an entrepreneur was 50%.

One of the lessons from the disastrous economics of the 1970s and the subsequent Reagan tax cuts is that everyone - particularly entrepreneurs - responds to incentives. If you take away 10% of a high earner's after-tax income at the margin, he will cut his taxable income by at least 4%. At the margin, this taxpayer now takes home 62.3% of his earnings, a figure that will drop to 47% under the Obama plan. According to a widely accepted economics rule of thumb, the entrepreneur's taxable profit would drop by 11.2%.

Now consider how the Obama plan would affect the taxes paid by such an entrepreneur with a taxable profit from his business of $500,000. Under current law, he would pay $27,148 in Social Security and Medicare taxes, plus $142,969 in personal income taxes, for a total of $170,117. If the taxpayer did not change his behavior at all, under the Obama plan he would face a $31,000 Social Security tax hike and a $11,494 hike in his personal taxes - or a 25% tax hike. But, if the taxpayer responds as the economic models predict, his taxable profit would drop to $444,000. His Social Security and Medicare tax bill would still soar to $51,580. But his income taxes, even with a higher tax rate, would drop to $132,882 for a total of $184,462.

In other words, Sen. Obama is planning on a combined series of tax hikes to produce $42,000 in tax revenue, but consensus economic modeling suggests the government's net take would rise only $14,000.

We should also keep in mind that the economic well-being of the country is not measured by how much taxes the government can collect, or even the size of the deficit. Rather, it is measured by the country's productive capacity. Our theoretical entrepreneur's 11.2% decline in taxable income reflects both less effort on his part and a less efficient use of his income in order to avoid confiscatory tax rates. Or, to put it directly, Sen. Obama's plan would reduce an entrepreneur's after-tax profits by $70,000 - $56,000 in lost profits and $14,000 more in taxes - just to produce a net revenue gain to the government of $14,000.

It is shocking to think that we have a presidential candidate who would make the private sector $5 poorer in order to make the government $1 richer. More likely, given the calculated political design of the proposal, no one in the Obama campaign told the candidate about the economic, ethical or historical consequences of his suggestion.

This indicates that what is really on offer is not some postpartisan approach to politics, but a Democratic candidate far to the left of Bill Clinton.


The Two Obamas

DAVID BROOKS draws attention to the psychopathic Obama below

God, Republicans are saps. They think that they're running against some academic liberal who wouldn't wear flag pins on his lapel, whose wife isn't proud of America and who went to some liberationist church where the pastor damned his own country. They think they're running against some naive university-town dreamer, the second coming of Adlai Stevenson.

But as recent weeks have made clear, Barack Obama is the most split-personality politician in the country today. On the one hand, there is Dr. Barack, the high-minded, Niebuhr-quoting speechifier who spent this past winter thrilling the Scarlett Johansson set and feeling the fierce urgency of now. But then on the other side, there's Fast Eddie Obama, the promise-breaking, tough-minded Chicago pol who'd throw you under the truck for votes.

This guy is the whole Chicago package: an idealistic, lakefront liberal fronting a sharp-elbowed machine operator. He's the only politician of our lifetime who is underestimated because he's too intelligent. He speaks so calmly and polysyllabically that people fail to appreciate the Machiavellian ambition inside.

But he's been giving us an education, for anybody who cares to pay attention. Just try to imagine Mister Rogers playing the agent Ari in "Entourage" and it all falls into place.

Back when he was in the Illinois State Senate, Dr. Barack could have taken positions on politically uncomfortable issues. But Fast Eddie Obama voted "present" nearly 130 times. From time to time, he threw his voting power under the truck.

Dr. Barack said he could no more disown the Rev. Jeremiah Wright than disown his own grandmother. Then the political costs of Rev. Wright escalated and Fast Eddie Obama threw Wright under the truck.

Dr. Barack could have been a workhorse senator. But primary candidates don't do tough votes, so Fast Eddie Obama threw the workhorse duties under the truck.

Dr. Barack could have changed the way presidential campaigning works. John McCain offered to have a series of extended town-hall meetings around the country. But favored candidates don't go in for unscripted free-range conversations. Fast Eddie Obama threw the new-politics mantra under the truck.

And then on Thursday, Fast Eddie Obama had his finest hour. Barack Obama has worked on political reform more than any other issue. He aspires to be to political reform what Bono is to fighting disease in Africa. He's spent much of his career talking about how much he believes in public financing. In January 2007, he told Larry King that the public-financing system works. In February 2007, he challenged Republicans to limit their spending and vowed to do so along with them if he were the nominee. In February 2008, he said he would aggressively pursue spending limits. He answered a Midwest Democracy Network questionnaire by reminding everyone that he has been a longtime advocate of the public-financing system.

But Thursday, at the first breath of political inconvenience, Fast Eddie Obama threw public financing under the truck. In so doing, he probably dealt a death-blow to the cause of campaign-finance reform. And the only thing that changed between Thursday and when he lauded the system is that Obama's got more money now.

And Fast Eddie Obama didn't just sell out the primary cause of his life. He did it with style. He did it with a video so risibly insincere that somewhere down in the shadow world, Lee Atwater is gaping and applauding. Obama blamed the (so far marginal) Republican 527s. He claimed that private donations are really public financing. He made a cut-throat political calculation seem like Mother Teresa's final steps to sainthood.

The media and the activists won't care (they were only interested in campaign-finance reform only when the Republicans had more money). Meanwhile, Obama's money is forever. He's got an army of small donors and a phalanx of big money bundlers, including, according to The Washington Post, Kenneth Griffin of the Citadel Investment Group; Kirk Wager, a Florida trial lawyer; James Crown, a director of General Dynamics; and Neil Bluhm, a hotel, office and casino developer.

I have to admit, I'm ambivalent watching all this. On the one hand, Obama did sell out the primary cause of his professional life, all for a tiny political advantage. If he'll sell that out, what won't he sell out? On the other hand, global affairs ain't beanbag. If we're going to have a president who is going to go toe to toe with the likes of Vladimir Putin, maybe it is better that he should have a ruthlessly opportunist Fast Eddie Obama lurking inside.

All I know for sure is that this guy is no liberal goo-goo. Republicans keep calling him naive. But naive is the last word I'd use to describe Barack Obama. He's the most effectively political creature we've seen in decades. Even Bill Clinton wasn't smart enough to succeed in politics by pretending to renounce politics.


Is There A Pattern Here? If So, Is There A Name For It?

Barack Obama

* opposes school vouchers for poor families but sends his own children to a private school;

* supports "campaign finance reform" but opts out of public financing since he can raise more money privately under the old, presumably corrupt system;

* attests to the centrality of his religious experience in shaping his identity but regards others, who are less privileged and culturally and politically different, as "clinging" to religion;

* promises an end to bitter partisanship even though his own record (what there is of it) is one of the most partisan in the Senate and his opponent's is one of the most bi-partisan;

* promises to transcend race even though he a) married, sat passively for 20 years in the pews of, and raised his children in a church led by and permeated with a militant afro-centrism that often found expression in parnoid (they invented AIDS to kill us), anti-white ("greedy whites" etc.), hatred of America (AmeriKKKa, etc.), and b) continues to support government programs that benefit some and burden others because of their race.

* claims to face the future "with profound humility and knowledge of my own limitations" while, several lines later in the same speech, claiming that his own nomination will be regarded in the future as "the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless . the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.."

I know there's a word for a pattern of saying one thing and doing the opposite, but I can't call it to mind right now. Let's see, it's not "Messiah" (despite caring for the sick for the first time, halting the rise of the oceans, and healing the planet) ... it's not "New Politician." Oh well, I'm sure I'll think of it in a while....


Obama the ignoramus

According to recent headlines, Barack Obama is a man on the "cusp" and in the "swirl" of history. True enough. But for a man poised to make American history, Obama has an alarmingly tenuous grasp of it. He has portrayed himself and his candidacy as an inventible, almost predestined force of history. From launching his campaign on the steps of the Old Illinois State Capitol, where Abraham Lincoln delivered his legendary "House Divided" speech, to basking in the youthful shadow of John F. Kennedy while sharing stages with that martyred president's relatives, Obama has placed his and his family's story firmly in the context of the most noble and heroic aspects of America's past.

However, even casual fans of U.S. history will notice that Obama's understanding of his country's story is riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies. On March 4, 2007, speaking at the Selma Voting Rights March Commemoration, Obama, claiming that the legendary march brought his parents together, said, "There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. So they got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Alabama..." (Sorry Barack, but if that's your only claim on Selma, you don't have one. The bridge protest took place in 1965, four years after you were born.)

In the same speech, Obama linked his father's arrival in America and his own birth to Camelot. "So the Kennedys decided, 'We're going to do an airlift. We're going to go to Africa and start bringing young Africans over to this country and give them scholarships to study so they can learn what a wonderful country America is," he said. And thus his Kenyan father met his transplanted Kansan mother and history was made.

Not quite. It was Kenyan nationalist Tom Mboya who lobbied Americans to bring Africans to the states to create a new class of educated African elite, resulting in the 1959 airlift that brought Barack Obama Sr. to Hawaii. President Kennedy did not take office until 1961, and there is no evidence to suggest that before he took office he or any members of his family supported the program.

This past Memorial Day, Obama, speaking in New Mexico, claimed his uncle was one "of the first American troops to go into Auschwitz and liberate the concentration camps." Awkwardly, Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz, not Americans forces.

WHILE OBAMA STRUGGLES with dates and facts, even more disturbing is his cockeyed view of past U.S. diplomacy, which he uses to defend his own vision of its future.

Shunning the current administration's strategy for dealing with foreign dangers, Obama recently said "Change is realizing that meeting today's threats requires not just our firepower, but the power of our diplomacy -- tough, direct diplomacy where the president of the United States isn't afraid to let any petty dictator know where America stands and what we stand for." He called this the noble "legacy of Roosevelt, and Truman, and Kennedy."

So Obama uses the collective legacies of past Democratic presidents as a shield to defend his proposed presidential get-togethers with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar-al Assad, Hugo Chavez, the Castros and any other murderous dictator that wants to have tea with the leader of the free world.

But Roosevelt never met with Hitler, Mussolini, or Emperor Hirohito. Neither did Truman, who also never met with Kim Il Sung. The inexperienced young Kennedy's Vienna summit with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961 is now considered a failure. In fact, reflecting upon the debacle, Kennedy himself later admitted, "He beat the hell out of me."

In fact, it was Kennedy's disastrous interaction with Khrushchev that led the Russian leader to believe that America wouldn't interfere with the construction of the Berlin Wall or take decisive action to stop Operation Anadyr -- the secret deployment of Soviet missiles to Cuba.

While Obama freely appropriates history to suggest his coming place in America's pantheon of great leaders, his cheerleading section in the American (and international) press has been rather quiet, only egged on to call Obama on his distortions when conservative bloggers point them out. (One wonders what type of reaction John McCain would get if he were to present a similarly skewed version of American history?)

Obama's capture of the Democratic presidential nomination is indeed historic, as would be his victory in November. But the would-be maker of American history is no student of it. How can someone whose understanding of our history is so hazy now be poised to reshape it?



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