Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Be Not Cool

A Leftist writer says that, for Barack Obama, the presidential race right now demands a sense of urgency. And that's hard to convey when you never seem to sweat.

In a way arguably unlike any previous presidential contender (yes, okay, fine: JFK, maybe), Barack Obama personifies cool. He's young. He's hip. (Check out that iPod playlist.) He's black. He's got that whole smooth-talking, fist-bumping, "What, me worry?" vibe going. His oratory uplifts without inflaming. He talks of hope and change and endless possibility, but always with an edge of restraint and composure that soothes even as it inspires. The "No Drama Obama" label suits him. Long, lean, and always perfectly turned out, the man looks as though he could withstand a nuclear staredown without breaking a sweat.

All of which strikes me as a bit of a problem at this point. While the cool, composed, no-drama demeanor helps Obama appear presidential--and no doubt allays some subliminal white racial anxieties--it also threatens to make him look a bit detached from the many and multiplying crises around him. These are not, to put it mildly, the most soothing of times for Americans. The economy is shaky. Unemployment is up. Growth is down. Oil prices have hit the roof just as home prices have crashed through the floor. Detroit is facing a full-fledged meltdown. We are still embroiled in two wars, neither of which offers much hope for a happy ending. Al Qaeda is running wild in western Pakistan. And now, like some bad acid flashback, Russia is acting like it wants to restart the Cold War.

Confronted by these dramas, Obama offers thoughtful, balanced, pragmatic responses. He does not promote quick-fix schemes to make it look as though he is a man of action, pounding his chest and vowing to Drill Now! or to declare a tax holiday to ease our gas pains. (Hell, even John McCain admits that more off-shore drilling would provide nothing more than a "psychological" balm for years to come.) When Russia invaded Georgia, his initial statement counseled restraint on the part of both parties. As it became clearer that Russia was up to no good, Obama's denunciations grew more pointed. But in this, as in most matters, he did not act or speak with a great deal of emotion. He stayed, if you will, cool.

Whether discussing health care or energy or foreign threats, what Obama almost invariably fails to convey is a sense of urgency. Yes, he seems sincere enough--earnest even. But all that equanimity can make you wonder if perhaps he quite gets it. Certainly, the average American is feeling like his or her issues could use some urgent attention. Gas prices need to come down now. The housing market needs to stabilize now. The international chaos bubbling up around us needs to be dealt with now. Something needs to be done about health care, and global warming, and illegal immigration, and the fact that every time you turn around it seems like another factory has closed and another 3,000 manufacturing jobs have been shipped to Jakarta. Now.

At the other end of the spectrum, John McCain positively vibrates whenever he speaks. The guy is old, but he is feisty--at times to a fault. (One does not earn the moniker "The White Tornado" by being low-key.) He blusters, he panders, he flies off the handle. He has a reputation for acting on emotion rather than reason. Looked at dispassionately, this is exactly the type of leader that should make the voting public anxious. But the voting public is already anxious. And under such circumstances, McCain's constant flappability may come across as downright comforting.

This is not to argue that Obama should try to alter his basic nature or pretend to care deeply about issues that are not important to him. And, of course, most problems do not have an immediate solution. But he does need to recognize that unrelenting cool may not be what voters are longing for this election. Make no mistake: Obama is not some spiritless wonk burying us in figures but unable to fit them into a compelling narrative (the usual Democratic pitfall). It's just that his delivery of the narrative is a bit even-keeled and high-toned for a nervous nation. Bill Clinton made a career not out of simply feeling voters pain, but out of showing them he was feeling it. Obama needs to find a way to do something similar. Fast. For all its attractions, cool has its limitations.


The child of light ignores the real America

By Carol Platt Liebau

There's one more point about Barack's performance in last night's forum that bears mentioning. According to the transcript, during a discussion of moral failures -- first his own, and then America's -- Barack had this to say:

"I think America's greatest moral failure in my lifetime has been that we still don't abide by that basic [p]recept in Matthew that whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me. And notion of - that basic principle applies to poverty. It applies to racism and sexism. It applies to, you know, not having - not thinking about providing ladders of opportunity for people to get into the middle class. I mean, there is a purvasive [sic] sense I think that this country is wealthy and powerful as we still don't spend enough time thinking about the least of these."

I don't know what country Barack Obama is living in, but it has no relation to the America that I know. Could we do better? Of course -- always, in fact, until America is Heaven on Earth. But where is the "pervasive sense" that we are "not thinking about providing ladders of opportunity for people to get into the middle class"?

What does he think that the very generous government funding of higher education -- along with an extensive system of student loans -- is about? Why, pray tell, do more people want to come here than to any other country in the world, and why is America known as the "land of opportunity"?

As for his assertion that "we still don't spend enough time thinking about the least of these" -- well, clearly, Barack is a lefty who defines "thinking about" in terms of tax money spent. But even on that level, in America, as economist Walter Williams has noted:
In 2005, total federal, state and local government expenditures on 85 welfare programs were $620 billion. That's larger than national defense ($495 billion) or public education ($472 billion). The 2005 official poverty count was 37 million persons. That means welfare expenditures per poor person were $16,750, or $67,000 for a poor family of four.
Those figures understate poverty expenditures because poor people are recipients of non-welfare programs such as Social Security, Medicare, private charity and uncompensated medical care.

And although the system isn't optimal, keep in mind that even illegal aliens can break our laws, yet enjoy free medical care and education for their children. See how many other countries offer that deal.

Finally, consider the tradition of American voluntarism. More than a quarter of Americans volunteered their time in 2007, for more hours than those of which a typical workweek is comprised. For a society that "doesn't spend enough time thinking about the least of these," that's impressive.

In fact, it's impressive, period. Many languages don't even have a word for "volunteer" because the concept of donating one's time for the good of others, without government coercion, is a foreign concept. (The Russian language is one of them).

No one is saying that America is perfect. We have a sad legacy of racial discrimination -- but again, one that virtually all Americans regret and have been willing to spend our treasure and our time to rectify.

If Barack Obama wants to condemn the USA for its failure to provide opportunity or its selfishness, he can only do it if he's envisioning socialist governments -- where the government "gives" everyone everything by dint of exorbitant and coercive tax rates -- as the exemplars of compassion.


Obama twists the Bible

A graduate of the John Kerry Bible College, Barack Obama is true to form. Like his mentor, Obama cites Scripture to bolster his socialist view of the world and make himself seem more "Christian." Unless you live in a cave, you heard about Saturday's Q&A between Rick Warren of "mega-church" Saddleback and presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama. For this post, I want to focus on a few statements Obama made (from an unedited transcript - emphasis added):
"I think America's greatest moral failure in my lifetime has been that we still don't abide by that basic [p]recept in Matthew that whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me. And notion of - that basic principle applies to poverty. It applies to racism and sexism. It applies to, you know, not having - not thinking about providing ladders of opportunity for people to get into the middle class. I mean, there is a purvasive [sic] sense I think that this country is wealthy and powerful as we still don't spend enough time thinking about the least of these."

The Scripture is Matthew 25, starting at verse 31, whose titles are variants of "The Son of Man Will Judge the Nations," "Judgment of the Gentiles," etc. The passage deals with the coming judgment after Christ returns. Sitting on his throne, Christ separates believers (sheep) from the unrepentant (goats). He tells believers that what they've done for the least of the brethren, fellow believers, they've done for him.

Though Christians disagree on this, I think what's clearly in view here is not charity for all the less fortunate. It's about Christians attending to the legitimate needs of other Christians. But more about that later.

The Unborn: The Least of My Brothers

With a straight face, Obama chastised others for not abiding by the precepts of Matthew 25, when he had a chance to do the same and failed. For example, instead of choosing to protect and care for the least of his brothers, the unborn, by supporting a bill that would protect those born alive after failed abortion attempts, he voted against the bill. (Obama can't keep straight his reasons for voting against the bill. Also see Life Lies.) Who among us is more vulnerable and needy than an infant, unborn or otherwise? Obama the "Christian" said he would not yield when it comes to a woman's right to have her baby slaughtered.

To Obama, America's "greatest moral failure" isn't that babies are murdered; it's that our "wealthy and powerful" country isn't giving more money to the poor. (See Carol Platt Liebau's comment on that.) Never mind that Americans give billions of dollars in charity each year, uncoerced by the government. I wonder what Obama will say on Judgment Day if Christ asks, "Why didn't you protect the least and most vulnerable of your brothers, those in the womb?"

Obama Echoes Kerry

During his failed bid for the presidency in 2004, John Kerry implied that George Bush was neglecting to do "good works," biblically speaking, because he wanted to cut spending, and that spending more tax dollars was evidence of fruits of salvation. See Kerry Cites Scripture To Battle Bush View and John Kerry and James 2.

Socialist types trying to appeal to Christians often cite Jesus' earthly ministry of physically feeding the poor and healing the sick. Never mind that these acts were signs pointing to spiritual feeding and healing or that these social types conveniently leave out all that scary stuff about God's judgment against the unrepentant. They can quote chapter and verse on helping "the least of my brothers" with more taxpayer-supported government programs, but ignore the reality of Christ's judgment on the world or the need to accept Christ to avoid that judgment.

But I digress. The point is this: Christian acts of charity are to be done on an individual level, and the nature of that giving is voluntary. In Matthew 25, Christ wasn't commending believers and condemning unbelievers based on what they rendered unto Caesar; he was referring to individual acts of kindness those who love God are willing do.

Does Obama really believe Christ had government in view in Matthew 25, that spending even more tax dollars on the "needy" fulfills God's requirement for Christians to care for the poor in their congregations? From what I've read and heard, Obama believes in a jumbled social gospel mess that's based on theological ignorance.


Huge bias in media coverage

Democrat Barack Obama has had about a 3 to 1 advantage over Republican John McCain in Post Page 1 stories since Obama became his party's presumptive nominee June 4. Obama has generated a lot of news by being the first African American nominee, and he is less well known than McCain -- and therefore there's more to report on. But the disparity is so wide that it doesn't look good.

In overall political stories from June 4 to Friday, Obama dominated by 142 to 96. Obama has been featured in 35 stories on Page 1; McCain has been featured in 13, with three Page 1 references with photos to stories on inside pages. Fifteen stories featured both candidates and were about polls or issues such as terrorism, Social Security and the candidates' agreement on what should be done in Afghanistan.

This dovetails with Obama's dominance in photos, which I pointed out two weeks ago. At that time, it was 122 for Obama and 78 for McCain. Two weeks later, it's 143 to 100, almost the same gap, because editors have run almost the same number of photos -- 21 of Obama and 22 of McCain -- since they realized the disparity. McCain is almost even with Obama in Page 1 photos -- 10 to 9.

This is not just a Post phenomenon. The Project for Excellence in Journalism has been monitoring campaign coverage at an assortment of large and medium-circulation newspapers, broadcast evening and morning news shows, five news Web sites, three major cable news networks, and public radio and other radio outlets. Its latest report, for the week of Aug. 4-10, shows that for the eighth time in nine weeks, Obama received significantly more coverage than McCain.

Obama's dominance on Page 1 is partly due to stories about his winning the bruising primary battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton and his trip overseas in July. The coverage of June 4, 5, 6 and 7 led to six Page 1 stories in The Post, including Obama's nomination victory, his strategy, elation among African Americans over the historic nature of his win and his fundraising advantage. Then he made an appearance at Nissan Pavilion with Virginia's Gov. Timothy Kaine and Sen. James Webb, and it became a local Page 1 story. During those few days, there was one Page 1 reference to an inside-page story about McCain going after Clinton's disgruntled supporters.

When Obama traveled to the Middle East and Europe, the coverage dwarfed that of McCain -- six Page 1 stories from July 19 to July 27, plus an earlier front-page story announcing the trip. McCain managed one Page 1 story and one Page 1 reference; the July 25 story said he might pick a vice presidential candidate soon, but that didn't happen. While there was no front-page story about Obama on July 25, it seemed wrong not to count that day because a photo of him in Berlin dominated the front page. I also counted a story about a Post-ABC News poll concerning racism and its potential impact on the election; 3 in 10 of those polled acknowledged racial bias.

Not all Page 1 coverage has been favorable. Obama was hit right away with two Page 1 stories about Washington insider James A. Johnson, a former Fannie Mae CEO, who was criticized for mortgage deals and then withdrew from vetting Obama's potential running mates. A story about Obama's former Chicago church reminded readers of the controversy over his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. There were also stories with a favorable cast -- about his patriotism, his first appearance with Clinton and the coverage from his foreign trip.

McCain's Page 1 stories were a mix -- a story about the flap over former senator Phil Gramm's comment about a "nation of whiners" over the economy and a story about conservatives wanting to battle McCain on the party platform. But there also were stories about plans to make the federal government more environmentally responsible and McCain's proposal for offshore drilling.

The single most revealing story about McCain -- and one of the best Post stories on either candidate -- was a top-of-the-front-page look at McCain's intellect. The story, by veteran reporter and editor Robert G. Kaiser, was the kind of analysis that tells readers something they didn't know. It was neither positive nor negative, just revealing and insightful.

Another favorite was by Business reporter Lori Montgomery on how both candidates will have trouble lowering the deficit with their spending plans. A Style & Arts change of pace was movie critic Stephen Hunter's look at McCain and Obama as film icons-- McCain as John Wayne and Obama as Will Smith.

Page 1 coverage isn't all that counts, but it is the most visible. Certainly there were many stories on the Politics page and elsewhere in the paper. (I'm not counting opinion columns.) The Trail, The Post's politics blog, had dozens of short items about both candidates, all interesting to political junkies. Post inside coverage has been a mix of horse-race coverage -- stories about endorsements, advisers, who can win where -- and issues stories.

Style stories have dealt with the Internet, voters and volunteers, and the cultural aspects of the campaigns. Cindy McCain was featured in a big Style spread and Michelle Obama in a Metro story about her recent visit to Virginia.

Bill Hamilton, assistant managing editor for politics, thinks that I'm wrong to put weight on numbers. "We make our own decisions about what we consider newsworthy. We are not garment workers measuring our product every day to fulfill somebody's quota. That means as editors we decide what we think is important, because that's what our readers look for us to do -- not to adhere to some arbitrary standard.

"The nomination of the first African American presidential nominee after a bitter primary campaign and his efforts to unite a party afterward were simply more newsworthy than a candidate whose nomination was already assured and who spent much of that time raising money. In the end, we can and should be judged on the fairness of our coverage, but that is a judgment that must be made over the course of the whole campaign, not a single period of time."

Numbers aren't everything in political coverage, but readers deserve comparable coverage of the candidates.


Obama's Tax Plan Is Really a Welfare Plan

Barack Obama's tax plan is the opposite of supply-side economics. He proposes to raise marginal rates for just about every federal tax. He also proposes a raft of tax credits that taxpayers can receive if they engage in various government-specified activities. Moreover, the tax credits would mostly go to those who pay little or nothing in federal income taxes. His trick is to make the tax credits "refundable." Thus, if the tax credit is for $1,000, but the taxpayer would otherwise only pay $200 in taxes, the government would write a check to the taxpayer for $800. If the taxpayer pays nothing in federal income taxes, the government would pay him the whole $1,000.

Such credits are not tax cuts. Indeed, they should be called The New Tax Welfare. In effect, Mr. Obama is proposing to create or expand a slew of government spending programs that are disguised as tax credits. The spending on these programs is then subtracted from the total tax burden, in order to make the claim that his tax plan is a net tax cut overall.

On the tax side of the ledger, the details released by his campaign last week confirm what a President Obama has in mind for our most productive citizens. The top individual income tax rate, for example, would be increased by 13%, to 39.6%; the next-highest rate would be raised to 36%. The top rates on capital gains and dividends would rise by a third, to 20%

The Social Security payroll tax would be raised between 16% to 32% for families making over $250,000 a year. This means that the real returns these people get from their lifetime payments into the retirement program will be driven below 0%, according to my own previous research, which was published by the Cato Institute and elsewhere.

Mr. Obama also wants a permanent federal estate tax, with a top rate of 45%; his health-insurance plan includes a new payroll tax on employers; and he also contemplates several increases in the corporate income tax, including a new so-called windfall profits tax on oil companies.

Then there is the spending side of the ledger. Mr. Obama proposes a fully refundable Making Work Pay Tax Credit, which would have the government pay out $500 to each worker and $1,000 to couples -- reminiscent of George McGovern's 1972 election proposal for the government to send a $1,000 check to everyone.

His American Opportunity Tax Credit would provide a $4,000, fully refundable tax credit for college tuition expenses. His Mortgage Interest Tax Credit would provide a 10% credit -- refundable -- to offset mortgage interest payments for lower- and middle-income families. His Health Care Tax Credits, which the campaign says "will ensure that health insurance is available and affordable for all families," include "a new refundable 50 percent health tax credit on employee premiums paid by employers."

Currently existing tax credits would also become spending programs in the Obama tax program. The Savers Credit would be made fully refundable, and would be expanded, according to the campaign, "to match 50% of the first $1,000 of savings for families that earn under $75,000." The Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit would be made refundable and expanded to allow "low-income families to receive up to a 50 percent credit on the first $6,000 of child care expenses."

The Earned Income Tax Credit is already refundable. Mr. Obama would expand it to "increase the number of working parents eligible for EITC benefits, increase the benefits available to noncustodial parents who fulfill their child support obligations, increase benefits for families with three or more children, and reduce the EITC marriage penalty, which hurts low-income families." In short, welfare spending is to be increased by paying more money out to low-income income tax filers.

The latest Congressional Budget Office data shows the bottom 40% of income earners already pays no income taxes. Indeed, they receive a net payment from the federal income tax system -- meaning from the taxpayers -- equal to 3.8% of all federal income taxes, because of the refundable tax credits under current law. The middle 20% of income earners, the true middle class, pays 4.4% of federal income taxes.

Overall, the bottom 60% of income earners pay less than 1% of federal income taxes on net. When "tax credits" primarily go to this group in the form of checks from the government (rather than a reduction in their tax burden) it is simply an abuse of the language to call the spending a tax cut.

Consequently, to say, as the campaign does say, that the candidate's tax plan is a tax cut on net -- and that it would limit taxes to 18.2% of GDP -- is grossly misleading. The Obama tax plan would sharply increase real taxes. It also would come nowhere near to paying for the massive increases in federal spending he has proposed, including the spending that is disguised in the form of refundable tax credits



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