Sunday, September 03, 2017

Transition Letters

CNN has released a copy of the note Barack Obama left for Donald Trump in the Oval Office. This is a tradition dating back some time. (Even the NYT is vague on this point--"part of a long tradition"--and my four minutes of Googling did not reveal how long.) We now have the four most recent, and while they all contain a similar spirit, they are also wonderful reflections of the men who wrote them. Here they are, with a bit of commentary.

George HW Bush to Bill Clinton, 122 words
The elder Bush was famously laconic, not atypical for WWII-era military men. It illustrates Bush's habit of mentioning slightly awkward things in the midst of very pro forma communications, some of them quite revealing. In the longest passage of this short note, he wanders into what is clearly a fresh bruise as he was leaving office--the constant criticism. The comment about loneliness also seems apt for a Greatest Generation president.

JANUARY 20, 1993  

Dear Bill,  

When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.  

I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.  

There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I'm not a very good one to give advice; but just don't let the critics discourage you or push you off course.  

You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country's success. I am rooting hard for you.  

Good Luck — 

Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, 122 words
Nobody enjoyed being president more than Bill Clinton--evident in his final paragraph. Not only does he look back on his burdens as exaggerated--for a president who managed to get impeached, they were not insubstantial!--but "sheer joy" is not what the presidency looks like from here. It's also amusing to see him offer a bit of the old Clinton spin there in the second paragraph.

JANUARY 20, 2001

Dear George, 
Today you embark on the greatest venture, with the greatest honor, that can come to an American citizen.  

Like me, you are especially fortunate to lead our country in a time of profound and largely positive change, when old questions, not just about the role of government, but about the very nature of our nation, must be answered anew.  

You lead a proud, decent, good people. And from this day you are President of all of us. I salute you and wish you success and much happiness.  

The burdens you now shoulder are great but often exaggerated. The sheer joy of doing what you believe is right is inexpressible. My prayers are with you and your family. Godspeed.  


George W. Bush to Barack Obama, 107 words
Of course Dubya's note was the shortest of the bunch; of Bush few will say, "he was an eloquent man of words." His note to Obama is nevertheless both revealing and surprisingly personal. Bush betrays not just the hurt he felt, but his approach to dealing with it (God and family), both of which seem totally consistent with how he governed. Both he and Obama signed with their initials, an interesting coincidence.

January 20, 2009

Dear Barack, 

Congratulations on becoming our President. You have just begun a fantastic chapter in your life. 
Very few have had the honor of knowing the responsibility you now feel. Very few know the excitement of the moment and the challenges you will face.  

There will be trying moments. The critics will rage. Your "friends" will disappoint you. But, you will have an Almighty God to comfort you, a family who loves you, and a country that is pulling for you, including me. No matter what comes, you will be inspired by the character and compassion of the people you now lead.  

God bless you.  


Barack Obama to Donald Trump, 279 words
Obama is one of the few presidents whose natural mode is writing, not speaking, so it's no surprise his note is more than twice as long as any of the others. It's unusual in a few ways, though that's largely because of the unusual figure inheriting the job. His four pieces of advice are very specific and pointed (and lawyerly), and I can't imagine him giving any of this advice to Hillary Clinton or even Ted Cruz. His note is undated, uniquely among the group, and also uniquely, mentions both wives (Michelle and Melania) specifically. In much shorter notes, the other three presidents divulged more of themselves than Obama, the most guarded president in my lifetime. Finally, more than the other presidents, Obama understands and frames the role in historical context (which is unusual; you'd think they'd all have that top of mind as they left the White House for the final time).

Dear Mr. President - 
Congratulations on a remarkable run. Millions have placed their hopes in you, and all of us, regardless of party, should hope for expanded prosperity and security during your tenure. 

This is a unique office, without a clear blueprint for success, so I don't know that any advice from me will be particularly helpful. Still, let me offer a few reflections from the past 8 years. 

First, we've both been blessed, in different ways, with great good fortune. Not everyone is so lucky. It's up to us to do everything we can (to) build more ladders of success for every child and family that's willing to work hard. 

Second, American leadership in this world really is indispensable. It's up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that's expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War, and upon which our own wealth and safety depend. 

Third, we are just temporary occupants of this office. That makes us guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions -- like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties -- that our forebears fought and bled for. Regardless of the push and pull of daily politics, it's up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them. 

And finally, take time, in the rush of events and responsibilities, for friends and family. They'll get you through the inevitable rough patches. 

Michelle and I wish you and Melania the very best as you embark on this great adventure, and know that we stand ready to help in any ways which we can. 

Good luck and Godspeed, 

Will Trump be in office to write a letter to his successor? Will he have the capacity to understand why such a small act is important and follow through on it? We'll see. Meanwhile, I leave you with images of the letters. Trump has not released the Obama letter, but you can see him brandishing it in the final photo. 

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Legacy of Shame

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Uneasy Compromise of America

Living on the west coast, the origins of the country have always felt bloodless and distant. My impression when I come to D.C. is one of wondrous, tangible incoherence. You walk around the city and you see a country that mythologized its founders as near godlike figures, wreathed in the regalia of Ancient Greece. But walk into the museums and you get the fuller, darker picture. In a town where the majority are black--as are many of the museum staff--we learn of our long white supremacist history, that these founders were as venal and conflicted as modern politicians. On the one hand they mouthed the word of liberty while they passed laws legalizing slavery and limiting those liberties to white, wealthy men. 

Yet the US contains multitudes. It is not possible to slide fully into depression about a country that really does take to heart the effort to create a more perfect union. I visited during pride weekend, so the city was festooned with rainbows, smiles, and, well, pride. The Library of Congress had a wonderful temporary installation of the history of gay civil rights. This, just in view of the Capitol building, where many members want to roll back these rights, and the Supreme Court, where the rights were finally affirmed.

On a stroll down 12th (?) I passed by the President's new hotel, which is as stark a symbol of corruption and decadence as one could imagine. Yet within five months, he's managed to rouse a country that means to check his power, and all the news rumbles with reports about obstruction of justice, lawsuits about emoluments violations, and federal probes. (As I judged cider and beer in Navy Yard--the purpose of my visit--Attorney General Jeff Sessions was being grilled by the Senate.)

What a weird, bloody, contradictory country we live in. It's too big and too populous to ever fall under a single orthodoxy. We live by uneasy compromise, lumbering from one fight to the next, always somehow united by belief in the character of a country that stands for so many different things.

Supreme Court

The Capitol from the Supreme Court.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Obama By The Numbers

Make America great again? The last guy pretty much did that.
Unemployment rate
Jan 1, 2001: 4.2%
Jan 1, 2009: 7.8%
Jan 1, 2016: 4.9%

Consumer confidence
Jan 2001: 94.7
Jan 2009: 60.1
Nov 2016: 93.8

GDP (2016 dollars)
Q4 2000: 14.32 trillion
Q4 2008: 16.37 trillion
Q3 2016: 18.68 trillion

Median household income (2015 dollars)
2000: $57,790
2008: $55,376
2015: $56,515

Dow Jones
Jan 2001: 15,002
Jan 20, 2009: 7,949
Jan 20, 2017: 19,822

States gaining nuclear weapons
Clinton: 2
Bush: 1
Obama: 0

Percentage without health insurance
2008: 16.8%
2009: 16.8%
2016: 10.5%

Approval when leaving office (Gallup)
Clinton: 66%
Bush: 34%
Obama: 58%
Trump today: 40%

Monday, December 12, 2016

How Salutary Will Be the Interference?

It's as if James Madison, writing in March 1788, was using some device to peer 228 years into the future when he wrote the following in Federalist 63.

"[T]here are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn."

"In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?”
How salutary (beneficial) the interference--that is the question, isn't it? Safe to say, already, 39 days before inauguration day, that Trump will not sane-up and spare the republic this challenge.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Trump: It's About Power, Not Truth

When I was on a year abroad in Varanasi twenty years ago, we used to play a lot of games. Rock, paper, scissors was easily the most brutal. It is, fundamentally, a game of dominance. When you play it over and over again, you begin to see the psychological habits of your foes; use that advantage and you can crush a person's spirit by beating them so often.

One of the guys on the fellowship with us relayed the experience he had playing it in college. The variant they played came from Asia, and the symbol for paper was "chi." There's this common mistake players make, where the symbol for paper and scissors scramble in the brain and you end up doing a kind of Spock gesture. In Syed's gaming group, the "banned Spock chi" was permissible in one circumstance: if you knew that the other player was going for rock you could announce "banned Spock chi" as you were playing the gesture as a way of committing a kind of coup de grĂ¢ce to finish off a particularly pathetic foe. It was the move of ultimate dominance, because you were announcing your move ahead of time. It was a brutal way to go down.

This is the game Donald Trump is playing with his foes, and we don't realize it. Members of the media and the left have been mystified why Trump can behave so outrageously without consequence. He lies, he offends, he surrounds himself with sycophants, incompetents, and nuts, he loses his shit. Why don't the normal rules apply to him?, we wonder. It's because he's not playing by normal rules. Josh Marshall has been discussing this for months, and others have touched on it as well, but it was Masha Gessen was speaking on On the Media that it really hit home. 

In autocracies (particularly Putin's, with which she is most familiar), the valence of speech is entirely different. It is not used to communicate meaning in the conventional sense. It is used to project power and authority. One of the most effective ways to do that is to violate norms. Lying transparently, making bigoted comments, attacking people in public--these are incredibly effective ways of demonstrating your dominance. The real message is: I have just lied, we both know this was a lie, and you are powerless to do anything about it. When Trump does this, he's saying "banned Spock chi!" to America.

This is precisely the reason people support Trump. They understand this power play and delights them. They delight in it partly because there is nothing we can do about it, but also because the people to whom it's being done don't even realize what's happening. We don't understand the rules. The media dutifully reports Trump news as if he were playing by the old rules rather than running a propaganda war. Trump wants to jail people who burn the flag? Doesn't he realize this is unconstitutional? Let's have five think pieces that discuss whether this is viable, what Texas vs. Johnson tells us, and oh yeah, what about that time Hillary proposed a law against flag-burning? 

Trumpies must have found this response highly amusing.

We are relying on norms and institutions to navigate the Trump years, and we must--they distinguish functioning democracies from dysfunctional autocracies. But that doesn't mean we should continue to extend Trump the same deference we do other leaders. He is attempting an entirely undemocratic power play (for reasons we don't yet understand), and our failure to understand it only enables him. This is a dangerous moment.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Will Dems Learn the Wrong Lessons?

After any election the losing party has to retrench and figure out how to win the next election. There is always a risk that, in the throes of anguish, they will draw the wrong conclusions. I fear the Democrats are in grave danger of doing that. Let's start with some numbers:
Total votes (through 12/1)
Obama 2012: 65,918,507 (51%)
Clinton 2016: 65,224,847 (48%)

Trump 2016: 62,679,259 (46%)
Romney 2012: 60,934,407 (47%)

Michigan Vote
Trump margin: 10,704; Stein total: 51,463

Trump margin: 46,765; Stein total: 49,678

Trump Margin: 22,177; Stein total: 31,006
By the time all the votes are counted, Hillary will have won roughly the same number of votes Obama did in 2012, somewhere near 3 million more than Trump, and a full two percentage points more votes. She lost because 80,000 people scattered across three states tipped the electoral college in Trump's favor--fewer people than voted for a very marginal third-party candidate. She lost because her voters lived in the wrong state, not because there were fewer of them. (I would feel terrible if I lived in Wisconsin and voted Stein, but I don't think there's any value in saying she "threw" the election.)

In fact, it was Trump who overperformed Romney rather than Hillary underperforming Obama. His rancid, divisive message was squarely in the center of the GOP and fired them up. Remember all these things: he is NOT an outlier among Republicans and Republicans STILL can't appeal to a majority/plurality of Americans. They are a minority group far out of step with the rest of us. This is a hugely important point because reacting to this election as if the voters "rejected" Democratic arguments will lead to solutions to problems that don't exist. 

Nevertheless, Dems did lose the election, and it's worth considering the biggest reasons. We should assume for the moment that 47% of the electorate will never abandon a candidate from the Republican Party in a presidential election. The question is how you win the majority of the gettable voters in states that can throw an election. There were several divides demographically:
  • Race. For decades, the GOP has appealed covertly to white voters, and have slowly eroded their support among nonwhites. Trump was +20% among whites, and Clinton was +53% among nonwhites. This probably understates actual nonwhite totals, which are typically undercounted during exits (in the coming months, better data will emerge). Still, it's revealing enough. Note that this divide was especially exaggerated among the non-college educated. Whites without a college degree favored Trump by 37%; nonwhites favored Hillary by 56%.
  • Rural versus Urban. Voters in rural areas favored Trump by 27%, voters in urban areas favored Hillary by 26%. (They were evenly divided in the suburbs.)
  • Age and Gender. Men were +11% for Trump, women +23% for Hillary. Young people (under 44 years) were +14% for Hillary; oldsters favored Trump by eight.
  • Income. Despite all the hand-wringing about the white working class and Hillary's supposed toxicity because of her connection to Wall Street, she handily won among those earning less than $50k (+12%).
The incessant focus on the white working class conceals several truths here. Those voters are older and whiter than the population as a whole and shrinking as a slice of the electorate. The Democratic base of young, urban, nonwhite voters is growing and must be the center of the party's focus. I know, I know, but some guy who writes for Vox has an uncle in Ohio who voted for Trump and Obama. Please ignore these kinds of stories. They grossly distort who the Dems should actually be paying attention to.

Those numbers tell Dems who their voters are, but not what will appeal to them. Two days after the election, Pew surveyed voters and asked what the "very big problems" our leaders should be addressing. Among Dems, the top four answers were:
  • Gun violence (73% of respondents)
  • Gap between rich and poor (72%)
  • Climate change (66%)
  • Affordability of a college education (66%)
Hillary ran a terrible campaign, no question. (Though to be fair, it wasn't obvious how to run against a candidate like Trump; given a do-over I'm certain she'd make very different decisions.) She basically never mentioned any of these. All of these issues strike at the coalition Hillary should be cultivating of younger urban voters. Moreover, there are certain issues that Trump ran on which are actually central to Democratic policy: job opportunities for working-class Americans (63% of the GOP cited this), drug addiction (62% of the GOP cited it), and even infrastructure, which was an issue favored by Dems, but strongly highlighted by Trump. Antipathy to Wall Street, support for a social safety net (family leave, childcare), marijuana issues--there are a host of important issues that are broadly popular among most voters.

What the Dems should not be doing is moving to the right or trying to appease the party in power. Even among the GOP, far-right policies are unpopular. Americans on the left are angry and feel government has failed them because the GOP obstruct things. The GOP are angry and feel government has failed them because their leaders don't do what they say. Addressing the problem from the left should avoid at all costs helping Republicans achieve what they want. That will enervate their own base, empower their opposition--oh, and destroy much of what liberals care about.

Finally, Dems need to recognize that the country has been captured by a minority party. We have a rural, white minority controlling all levers of power in the federal government. That creates a toxic situation in which the majority are ruled against democratic norms by the minority. When you add the racial split into it (along with the country's history of slavery and Jim Crow racism), when the winning (minority) candidate ran on a nakedly nativist platform, the whole thing is an irredeemable, anti-democratic mess. In addressing this situation, Dems absolutely must (for once!) act like they have the winning arguments, even if they lost the election. Because they do.

We'll see what they actually do in the coming weeks.