Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Governing by Pen and Phone

Obama used to sigh that he was not a dictator who could act unilaterally. No more.

Lately a weakened President Obama has fashioned a new attitude about consensual government: “We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need. I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone,” Obama boasted Tuesday as he convened his first cabinet meeting of the year. At least he did not say he intended to govern by “pen and sword.” If Obama used to sigh to supporters that he was not a dictator who could just implement progressive agendas by fiat, he now seems to have done away with the pretense of regret.

Obama has all but given up on the third branch of government since he lost control of it in 2010: “And I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward in helping to make sure our kids are getting the best education possible, making sure that our businesses are getting the kind of support and help they need to grow and advance, to make sure that people are getting the skills that they need to get those jobs that our businesses are creating.”

There are lots of creepy things about such dictatorial statements of moving morally backward in order to go politically “forward.” Concerning issues dear to the president’s heart — climate change, more gun control, de facto amnesty, more massive borrowing supposedly to jump-start the anemic, jobless recovery — Obama not long ago had a Democratic supermajority in the Senate and a strong majority in the House. With such rare political clout, he supposedly was going to pass his new American agenda.

Instead, all he got from his Democratic colleagues was more borrowing and Obamacare. In the case of the latter, the bill passed only through the sort of pork-barrel kickbacks and exemptions to woo fence-sitting Democratic legislators that we hadn’t seen in the U.S. since the 1930s. And for what? Obamacare (be careful what you wish for) is proving to be the greatest boondoggle in American political history since Prohibition. If Obama sincerely wished to work in bipartisan fashion with Congress, he probably could easily get a majority vote to build the Keystone XL Pipeline, or a backup sanction plan against Iran in case his own initiatives fail.

Note as well that Obama says he will bypass Congress for “our kids.” Politicians usually cite the “kids” when promoting something that is either illegal or unethical. Meanwhile, apart from Obama’s support for late-term abortion, no president has waged a greater war against those under the age of 30 — passing on to them an additional $9 trillion in debt, socializing the economy and presiding over near-record youth and minority unemployment rates, taxing far poorer youth who will not use much health care to pay for more affluent baby boomers who will, or floating easy federal student loans to facilitate mostly liberal universities’ jacking up tuition at well above the rate of inflation (currently a $1 trillion bubble).

We are reentering Nixonian times, or perhaps worse, given that a free press at least went after Nixon’s misdeeds and misadventures. Now it has silenced itself for fear of harming a once-in-century chance for a fellow progressive’s makeover of America. We live in an age when a CNN moderator interrupts a presidential debate to help her sputtering candidate, and when a writer for the often ironic and sarcastic New Yorker sees no irony in doing a fawning interview with the president, tagging along on a shakedown jet tour from one mansion of crony capitalists to the next — as Obama preaches to the head-nodders about inequality and fairness in order to ensure that the bundled checks pour in.

Without the media acting as a watchdog, the administration has with impunity found the IRS useful in going after political opponents. When Obama’s IRS appointees were exposed, he for the moment called their deeds outrageous; when the media did not pursue the outrage, he wrote it off as a nothing story.

The media certainly thought it was nothing, given that none of the obsequious Washington press corps will be unduly audited or indicted. But the administration has also monitored Associated Press reporters. Most of what it initially said about the National Security Agency snooping proved untrue — including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s flat-out lie to Congress while under oath, when he testified that the NSA was not collecting data on millions of Americans. All we know for now about Benghazi is that everything the administration alleged about the murders was false — from why Americans were there, to what prompted the violence, to why no help was sent before or during the attack, to the aftermath promises to hunt down the perpetrators.

The filmmaker and arch-critic of Barack Obama, Dinesh D’Souza, is now under indictment for improper campaign contributions. If he deliberately violated campaign-finance laws and compounded the violation by conspiring with others, then by all means he should face the full force of the law. The problem, though, is that even if D’Souza proves to be guilty as charged, others with far greater culpability — but with the correct political views — have not met the same degree of administration scrutiny.

Note, for example, what D’Souza did not do: He did not, as an Obama insider in the heat of the reelection campaign, leak classified information about vital national-security secrets like the Stuxnet virus attacks, the bin Laden raid, the drone protocols, or a double agent in Yemen in order to bolster the anti-terrorism credentials of the president; he did not, as a high-level Obama official, lie under oath to Congress about the NSA program; he is not a former Democratic governor who defrauded thousands of investors out of billions of dollars. Apparently none of that will get you arrested by this administration.

Mr. D’Souza also did not, as did Obama himself, have a soon-to-be-jailed felon sell him a lot next to his own house at below-market rates, without paying gift taxes on it, in exchange for perceived political favors. He did not pass illegally into the United States and reside here illegally by habitually lying on documents about his resident status. He did not go to the polls with clubs to intimidate voters. He did not bundle $500,000 to buy an ambassorship to Norway without knowing much of anything about Norway. He did not pitch green ideas to friends now in the Obama administration in order to land millions of dollars in federal loans that he would default on.

He did, though, make a movie critical of Barack Obama, and this is most likely what brought him under administration scrutiny, as did the activities of a video maker arrested for producing a politically incorrect video about Islam, or those of unduly audited Tea Party groups or Hollywood conservatives who have criticized the president. All of that, in this age of pen and phone, can get you arrested, audited, or on the IRS watch list.

Note the ripple effect, as partisans appreciate a new climate and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to even scores and advance the cause. The governor of New York announces that there is no place in his state for those whom he derides as “extreme conservatives” — only to be seconded by the new mayor of New York City. (Imagine the governor of Utah suggesting to liberal residents that their support for gun control, late-term abortion, and gay marriage might be good reasons for them to leave the state — and being seconded by the mayor of Salt Lake City. Or imagine a Republican president arbitrarily deciding that he does not like the DREAM Act component of a recently passed comprehensive immigration-reform bill, and so simply choosing to ignore it and deport students who are illegal aliens anyway.)

The first black senator from South Carolina since Reconstruction is blasted by a state NAACP official as a “dummy,” only to have that slur seconded by the national organization. On MSNBC, one newscaster hopes Sarah Palin ingests feces and urine; another takes a jab at Mitt Romney for having an African-American adopted grandchild; still another labels radio personality Laura Ingraham a “slut” — all convinced that the periodic presidential sermon about a new civility empowers their crudity and deters critics.

Under Obama, who you are and what you represent rather than what you have done are becoming the selective criteria for pen-and-phone legal enforcement. For the first time since 1974, America is no longer quite a lawful place.



Hollywood, Propaganda and Liberal Politics

Jonah Goldberg

The legendary media tycoon William Randolph Hearst believed America needed a strongman and that Franklin D. Roosevelt would fit the bill. He ordered his newspapers to support FDR and the New Deal. At his direction, Hearst's political allies rallied around Roosevelt at the Democratic convention, which some believe sealed the deal for Roosevelt's nomination.

But all that wasn't enough. Hearst also believed the voters had to be made to see what could be gained from a president with a free hand. So he financed the film "Gabriel Over the White House," starring Walter Huston. The film depicts an FDR look-alike president who, after a coma-inducing car accident, is transformed from a passive Warren Harding type into a hands-on dictator. The reborn commander in chief suspends the Constitution, violently wipes out corruption and revives the economy through a national socialist agenda. When Congress tries to impeach him, he dissolves Congress.

The Library of Congress summarizes the film nicely. "The good news: He reduces unemployment, lifts the country out of the Depression, battles gangsters and Congress and brings about world peace. The bad news: He's Mussolini."

Hearst wanted to make sure the script got it right, so he sent it to what today might be called a script doctor, namely Roosevelt. FDR loved it, but he did have some changes, which Hearst eagerly accepted. A month into his first term, FDR sent Hearst a thank-you note. "I want to send you this line to tell you how pleased I am with the changes you made in 'Gabriel Over the White House,'" Roosevelt wrote. "I think it is an intensely interesting picture and should do much to help."

I bring up this tale to note that Hollywood has never been opposed to propaganda. When Hollywood's self-declared auteurs and artistes denounce propaganda as the enemy of art, almost invariably what they really mean is "propaganda we don't like."

Consider the film "Lone Survivor," which tells the true story of heroic Navy SEALs in Afghanistan. The film has been denounced by some critics; a "jingoistic, pornographic work of war propaganda," in the words of one reviewer. Richard Corliss of Time chimed in: "That these events actually happened doesn't necessarily make it plausible or powerful in a movie, or keep it from seeming like convenient propaganda." Similar complaints (from non-conservatives, at least) about antiwar films made during the George W. Bush years are much harder to find.

Similarly, if Demi Moore proclaimed, "I pledge to be a servant to our president," at the dawn of the Bush presidency, it would have created a career-ending firestorm.

When it was owned by GE -- a company with billions of dollars invested in subsidy-dependent alternative energy technologies -- NBC began its "Green Week," seven days of sitcoms, sports shows and even news programs doing their part for the cause. There was nary a word of protest from TV critics or supposedly independent writers and producers about the corruption of art. I wonder, if Fox announced a "pro-life week," whether the same crowd would yawn as conspicuously.

In the book, "Primetime Propaganda," author Ben Shapiro quotes many TV producers boasting about blacklisting conservative actors and shilling for liberal issues. As Shapiro notes, perhaps no figure was more upfront -- or successful -- at yoking art to political proselytizing than Norman Lear, the creator of "All in the Family," "The Jeffersons" and other shows.

Which is fitting. Last fall, the California Endowment, which is spending millions to promote the Affordable Care Act, gave $500,000 to the Norman Lear Center at USC to work on ways to get Hollywood to do its part. In February, the center will cosponsor with the Writer's Guild of America an event in New York titled "The Affordable Care Act: Comedy, Drama & Reality," about portraying Obamacare in TV and film. The Obama administration, naturally, will be sending an emissary to help.

It's doubtful this will have any significant effect. The rollout has made its impression, and the changes wrought by Obamacare in the individual lives of millions of Americans won't be erased by a very special episode of "The Big Bang Theory." But it's a useful reminder that Hollywood is always eager to lend its services -- for the right president.



Income gap? Not many are obsessed

by Jeff Jacoby

THOUGH PRESIDENT Obama keeps insisting that income inequality is the "defining challenge of our time," most Americans beg to differ.

"What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?" asked Gallup in a nationwide survey this month. Dissatisfaction with the federal government — its incompetence, abuse, dysfunction, venality — topped the list, with 21 percent of respondents saying it was their key concern. The overall state of the economy was second, at 18 percent. Unemployment and health care were tied for third, with each cited by 16 percent as the nation's most pressing problem.

How many shared Obama's view that the gap between rich and poor is the issue that should concern us most? Four percent.

The president has been banging this populist drum for years. As a candidate in 2008, he famously told "Joe the Plumber" that it was good for everybody when the government acts to "spread the wealth around." In 2011 he went to Osowatomie, Kan., site of a famous speech by Theodore Roosevelt a century earlier, to condemn the "gaping inequality" in modern America, where those at the top of the economic ladder are "wealthier than ever before," while everyone else struggles with growing bills and stagnant paychecks. He told the Center for American Progress last December that "increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream," and warned that America's basic bargain — "if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead" — is disintegrating.

Class-war rhetoric excites the Democratic base. There have always been some voters for whom nothing is more repellent than a growing gap between the rich and the non-rich, or a stronger justification for more government regulation. But most Americans don't react that way. "When is the last time you heard a shoeshine person or a taxicab driver complain about inequality?" asks economist John C. Goodman. "For most people, having a lot of rich people around is good for business."

Obsessing over other people's riches isn't healthy. In a relatively free society, wealth is typically earned. There are exceptions, of course. Some people cheat their way to a fortune; some are just lucky; some pull political strings.

But on the whole, Americans with a lot of money have usually produced more, worked harder, aimed higher, or seen further than the rest of us. Inequality is built into the human condition, and the world is generally better off when people of uncommon talent and industry are free to climb as high as their abilities will take them.



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