Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sunday Reading

Obama, Explained — James Fallows at The Atlantic examines the man and his presidency.

If a year from now Obama is settling in for a second term, a halo effect will extend back to everything he did during his first four years. His programs will be more effective in reality, since he will get that many more years to cement them in with follow-up measures, supportive appointments to federal agencies and the courts, and possible vetoes of any attempts at repeal. And, through the lens of history, they will seem more effective, since whatever he did in his first term will appear to have been part of an overall plan that was ratified through reelection. Yet if a year from now a just-beaten former President Obama is thinking about his memoirs and watching his former appointees blame one another, and him, for the loss, the very same combination of missteps and achievements will be viewed as a narrative leading inexorably to defeat. By saying, after a year in office, that he would rather be “a really good one-term” president than a “mediocre” president who served two terms, Obama was playing to the popular conceit that presidents should rise above such petty concerns as reelection. The reality, though, is that our judgment about “really good” and “mediocre” presidents is colored by how long they serve. A failure to win reelection places a “one-term loser” asterisk on even genuine accomplishments. Ask George H. W. Bush, victor in the Gulf War; ask Jimmy Carter, architect of the Camp David agreement.

Not knowing how the election will turn out, what can we say now? I’m not talking about how Obama looks to the roughly one-third of Americans who have been skeptical of him from the start—his highest approval rating was around 70 percent, just after he took office—nor about how he looks to the nearly comparable number who by the end of last year said they still had “strongly favorable” opinions of his performance. But for the seemingly huge number of people who sense that he has shrunk in office and that his administration has achieved less than it should or could have, and for scholars, historians, and political veterans who have matched it against presidencies of the past, is there an objective way to judge Obama’s competence and control?

Cain Remains — Herman Cain is still trying to make his voice heard.

“If forty economists tell you it’s Thursday,” Jim Grant, the fiat money doomsdayer, warned, “you’d better check the calendar.” As I proceeded to do just that (Thursday, yep), the audience of conservatives at the CPAC panel “The Need For a 21st Center Gold Standard” continued nodding along. The panel had attracted a predictable assortment of eccentrics, including a sizable contingent of blazered college-age devotees of Ron Paul.

Sitting among them was also at least one would-be leader of the Republican Party: Rich “9-9-9” Lowrie, the man who crafted the plan that nearly sent Herman Cain to the White House. In our current reality TV presidential campaign, it’s men like Lowrie who have risen to the status of minor celebrity. But with that great power comes great responsibility. Just before the event ended, Lowrie stood up and ceremoniously thanked the audience for caring about gold, reminding them to keep an eye out for the issue on Cain’s recently-launched “Solutions Revolution” bus tour. Yes, a Herman Cain bus tour: As they say, the show must go on.

Like any reboot, of course, the “Solutions Revolution” is a slightly altered version of its predecessor. For one thing, it places a renewed emphasis on policy. Indeed, Cain is now trying to leverage his newfound power to push forward his policy priorities—more on those in a minute—within the Republican Party. He no longer wants to be President—he wants to be the GOP’s kingmaker.

Whitney Houston — Sasha Frere-Jones writes her obituary in The New Yorker.

With the weird blend of investment and helplessness that typifies kin, we’ve watched Whitney Houston die in front of us, slowly and unmistakably, for more than a decade. Now that she is dead at the age of forty-eight, found at the Beverly Hilton, we face a new and weirder blend: the grief you feel for someone you didn’t really know but are unable to pretend you weren’t tied to, and the awkward truth that they’ve met the end you expected. Do we shrug, and walk away, humbled by the brutality of the body’s chemistry? Do we wag our fingers even harder at our kids, as if we can somehow scare their brains into being 2.0 brains? Considering how many times Houston confronted her own addiction in public, her end confirms that the pull of addiction can be stronger than the pull of dignity.

Doonesbury — Low Grade Fever.