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When Obamacare Polls Are Accurate Without Being True

As Republicans form a circular firing squad, nervous Democrats continue to believe that this is a depressing time when the future of Obamacare is on the line.

There is some reason for worry: the Koch brothers are spending millions trying to get young people to “opt out” of seeking health insurance at the state level, which could wreck the risk pool essential for the program’s success.

But young people, who as a group support President Obama, aren’t likely to buy Koch lies. And Hollywood progressives are about to unveil a strange-bedfellows alliance with insurance companies that will spend tens of millions of dollars telling Americans the truth — that they are better off with Obamacare being fully implemented.

Meanwhile, the chances of the Affordable Care Act being defunded in Washington are between zero and none, as many Republicans are now acknowledging. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) doesn’t have the votes for his strategy of threatening a government shutdown over Obamacare, and everyone but Cruz knows it. Karl Rove wrote an impassioned plea to Republicans not to use this “ill-conceived tactic.” Some analysts believe a government shutdown, which would almost certainly be blamed on the GOP,  could even give Democrats an outside shot at winning back the House in 2014.

So why the jitters on the left? At least part of the explanation lies in polls on Obamacare that have been misunderstood or stripped of context. Over and over, Americans have been told that the public doesn’t support the president’s signature achievement. This is true in only the most literal sense of the word. It turns out that the idea behind the new law — universal coverage — is backed by a strong majority.

To get a sense of how the media are misreporting the story, consider a September 15 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. As David Weigel has noted in Slate, this is one of the most reliable polls around.  It found public widespread ignorance about the law, which will be implemented beginning October 1, and a high level of skepticism about Obamacare’s ability to improve people’s lives The poll reported that 30 percent of respondents thought it would have a negative impact on their families and only 12 percent were convinced it would be positive. More than half felt — accurately — that it would have no impact on their families.

But those weren’t the results that made headlines. It was the overall figure — 43 percent support Obamacare and 54 percent oppose it — that received wide coverage, just as similar poll numbers have in the past.

This is a classic example of something being accurate without being true.

As New York Times columnist Charles Blow has noted, a new CNN/ORC Poll shows that while 35 percent of the public (the conservative base) oppose Obamacare because it’s too liberal, 16 percent oppose it because it isn’t liberal enough

In other words, 59 percent of the American public either supports Obamacare or wants it to go further.

This casts an entirely new light on the health care debate and further isolates the obstructionists. They are now exposed as radicals who believe in extortion rather than elections — a fringe group of what John McCain in another context called “wacko birds.”

More evidence to bolster that point comes from a CNBC poll that shows the public opposed to cutting off funding for Obamacare by 44 to 38 percent. If it meant a government shutdown, nearly 60 percent oppose defunding. Surely if a majority opposed the idea of Obamacare, a similar majority would oppose the funding of it.

Liberals are justifiably upset about the way public opinion has been misreported on this issue, and most of the blame rests with reporters who don’t probe the internals of polls deeply enough.

But progressives have a role to play in changing the way the polling looks.

Longtime supporters of a single-payer system (I am among them) need to stop telling pollsters that they don’t like Obamacare, even if its provisions seem inadequate to them. Otherwise they will continue to be lumped in with Tea Party types and depicted as standing against a landmark achievement that liberals have been seeking since universal coverage first appeared in Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party (Bull Moose) Platform of 1912.

Photo: LaDawna’s pics via Flickr.com

Bush’s Long-Shot Campaign To Be Seen As Truman

April 26 (Bloomberg) — The dedication this week of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum was more than an opportunity for the five living U.S. presidents to compare notes on what Stefan Lorant called “the glorious burden” of the office.

It also was the beginning of Bush’s campaign for rehabilitation. As Bill Clinton said at the ceremony, all presidential libraries are attempts “to rewrite history.”

Bush’s ultimate goal — already hawked by his former political advisor Karl Rove — is to become another Harry S. Truman, a regular-guy commander in chief whose stock rose sharply about 20 years after he left office.

The superficial comparisons are intriguing. Vice President Truman only became president because Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office in 1945. The failed haberdasher and product of the Kansas City political machine was unlikely to make it to the top on his own. He was a plain-spoken, unpretentious man who cared enough about racial injustice that he desegregated the armed forces.

Bush became president because he was born on third base, to paraphrase Texas governor Ann Richards’ quip about his father, and because of the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore in 2000; an unexceptional man who drank heavily until he was 40 probably wouldn’t have made it on his own. He’s a blunt, compassionate conservative who, as Jimmy Carter pointed out at the dedication, saw the ravages of AIDS in Africa and elsewhere and did something about it. (Bush also appointed two black secretaries of state.)

Like Iraq in Bush’s era, the Korean War was hugely unpopular when Truman left office in 1953, and his decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan was at least as controversial as Bush’s support for torture.

Still, you don’t have to be Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to know that the differences between Bush and Truman are much greater than the similarities.

In Korea, Truman was responding to communist aggression, not hyping unconfirmed stories about weapons of mass destruction.

While Truman’s “Marshall Plan” (named for his secretary of state, George C. Marshall) produced spectacular results in postwar Europe, Bush apparently didn’t even have a plan for postwar Iraq.

His decision to disband the Iraqi army was catastrophic. Iraq and the simultaneous neglect of Afghanistan are only the best-known Bush administration fiascos that are all but airbrushed out of the museum, though not out of the historical record.

A broader list would include weakening bank-capital requirements and prohibitions on predatory lending that helped pave the way for the financial crisis; botching the response to Hurricane Katrina; gutting federal rules on worker safety, education, veterans’ affairs and other protections; endorsing a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage; editing climate-change reports to the specifications of ideologues; reinstating the global gag rule on family planning in deference to right-wing anti-abortion activists, and politicizing appointments to the federal bench and federal law enforcement.

All this is ignored by Bush apologists. Ed Gillespie, a longtime Republican operative who last year helped the party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, offered a defense of Bush in National Review that sought to absolve him of any blame for the budget deficit. As if the trillion-dollar wars, unaffordable tax cuts, the $550 billion (unpaid-for) prescription-drug benefit and hundreds of billions of lost revenue in the recession that began on his watch could be erased from history.

The new museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas is cleverly designed to subsume Bush’s record within the burdens of the presidency. It includes a “Decision Theater” that puts visitors in the shoes of a president forced to make tough calls on a variety of pressing issues.

The subtext is that this is an extremely hard job and that you, the visitor, couldn’t do it any better than Bush did.

While this may make for a thought-provoking museum experience, it’s a low bar for presidential performance. Allowing for some mistakes, we should admire our presidents not because they have to face tough decisions but for making the right ones.

The “moral clarity” that is Bush’s claim to presidential respectability is only worth something if it results in clear achievement.

As a sign that even Bush knows his batting average on big decisions was low, the museum barely mentions Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and other officials who helped him make them.

Cheney’s churlish behavior and frequent shots at President Barack Obama over the last four years have made Bush, who has refrained from criticism, look restrained and classy by comparison.

But you can’t flush a disastrous war down the memory hole. At the dedication, the word “Iraq” wasn’t mentioned once, and the museum covers the subject in a section devoted to “the Global War on Terror.”

Continuing to conflate Iraq with the Sept. 11 attacks is an insult to truth that historians will never be able to overlook.

On Sept. 14, 2001, I was in the White House press pool and was five feet from Bush as he stood atop a crushed truck as rescue workers at Ground Zero shouted that they couldn’t hear the president speak.

“I can hear you! I can hear you,” Bush said through a bullhorn. “The rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” It was a defining moment for his presidency.

The problem that Bush can never get around is that “the people who knocked these buildings down” — namely, Osama bin Laden — didn’t hear from Bush, while others unconnected to the attacks did.

The bullhorn is in the museum. And so is the bull.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Congress’s Notorious B.I.G. Agenda Just May Pass

April 12 (Bloomberg) — That sound you’re hearing may be the cracking of gridlock in Washington.

Bipartisan bills on three of the big issues of 2013 — the budget, immigration and guns — could pass Congress this spring. If the B.I.G. agenda goes through, the public will cheer, providing incentives for politicians to do more. It would also go some way toward rescuing our system from being the embarrassment it is now.

The key to getting anything done is the combination of an inside game (cutting deals behind closed doors) and an outside game (rallying supporters, running blistering ads).

This week, Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania showed Washington how to legislate on guns. Both have “A” grades from the National Rifle Association (Manchin was even shown firing a rifle in a 2010 campaign ad) but enough sense to know that requiring comprehensive background checks before gun purchases is an idea whose time has come. More than 90 percent of the public supports background checks; the NRA did, too, back in 1999.

The deal won the enthusiastic support of President Barack Obama and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg (the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News). It had the backing of enough conservatives to defeat an attempted filibuster; the Senate voted 68 to 31 to begin debate next week on a measure that would expand background checks to the 40 percent of gun sales that are unregulated.

The measure has a good chance of passage in the Senate. That would be a serious setback for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. When you threaten a filibuster and lose, the next threat is less potent, which means diminished power to obstruct down the road.

Pessimists say background checks will fail in the House, where the NRA has a near-stranglehold on the Republican majority. But that fails to account for the new order of battle. Supporters of background checks have put a couple of dozen swing district House members on notice: If you oppose this bill, winning your primary against a Republican extremist won’t mean much because you’ll be in deep trouble in the general election.

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, nothing so concentrates the mind as the prospect of millions of dollars’ worth of ads featuring the parents of slain Newtown children denouncing you.

After the background-check bill becomes law, get ready for comprehensive immigration reform. It probably won’t face a filibuster or sustained opposition, even from the most right- wing Republicans.

That’s because elections have consequences. All Republicans now know that they must do a better job of reaching out to Hispanics or they will go the way of the Whig Party.

It helps that the national climate is favorable for reform. The fever of U.S. nativism spikes from time to time before subsiding. Right now, it happens to be in check.

After the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” in the Senate bangs out a compromise between labor and business, McConnell, despite his fears of a Tea Party challenge for his seat in 2014, will have little room to maneuver. And when the bill goes to the House, where no filibusters are allowed, Democrats (who will almost all vote aye) need only about a dozen Republican votes to win.

The hardest nut to crack may be the budget, though there was progress on that front this week, too.

Republicans were sure that Obama was a Paleolithic Democrat who would never touch entitlements. He called their bluff in his budget by proposing $230 billion in savings by recalculating the way cost-of-living adjustments are assessed for entitlement programs, by using the chained consumer price index.

Predictably, progressives denounced the idea. The more intriguing reaction was from the right.

First, Representative Greg Walden of Oregon, who leads the Republicans’ 2014 campaign efforts, told CNN that Obama was “going after seniors.” This aroused Democratic fears that Republicans would once again pander to the elderly, as they did in 2010 by airing misleading ads saying that Obama was cutting Medicare by $500 billion to pay for the Affordable Care Act.

But the politics of entitlements are changing. Even as Walden’s view was endorsed by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, former representative Chris Chocola, president of the influential Club for Growth, asked Walden to “clarify” his opposition to chained CPI, which is politician-speak for “retract it now.”

“Greg Walden doesn’t seriously oppose even the most modest of reforms to Social Security, right?” Chocola asked. “With nearly $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities, the last thing Republicans should attack the Democrats for is for making the most minor reforms to our entitlement programs.”

Republican confusion on entitlements gives Obama an opening for a divide-and-conquer strategy. By making the budget and entitlement debate more fluid — less dependent on whether House Speaker John Boehner can hold his caucus — the president now has more options for finding a “good bargain,” if not a “grand” one, either in the next few weeks or when the debt ceiling has to be raised again later in the year.

Budget. Immigration. Guns. The Notorious B.I.G. agenda could very well become law in 2013, defying our expectations for political paralysis once again.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Meet The Man Who Showed Us Romney’s Hidden Side

History sometimes has a way of tying itself up with a little bow. That’s the way I felt in January when I introduced Scott Prouty, the bartender-turned-videographer who helped sink Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, to Teddy Goff, the 28-year-old director of digital media for President Barack Obama’s re-election.

Prouty was a new source. After scratching at the story for weeks as part of research for a new book, I had convinced him to meet me in Washington in January. I wanted him to tell me everything he could about recording Romney at the now-famous Boca Raton fundraiser where the Republican candidate said that 47 percent of Americans were “victims” who wouldn’t “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” David Corn of Mother Jones broke the original story; I wanted the back story.

Goff is the kind of young campaign worker whose competence and dedication caused the president to shed tears at his Chicago headquarters the day after the election. The aide had cracked the code on Internet fundraising, helping take the Obama campaign from $15 million a month in online donations in the spring to more than $150 million a month in the fall, with an average donation of just $65.

The night after our first meeting, I ran into Prouty and his girlfriend at an inaugural ball. I asked if he wanted to meet someone from the Obama campaign. He had been given tickets to the inauguration and the ball by friends at the United Steelworkers of America; he had never met or even corresponded with anyone from the campaign or the White House.

Prouty said he wanted to say hello — he had become an Obama fan — but asked that I not reveal his name or that he was the bartender who shot the images in Boca Raton. He was still uncomfortable with the idea of becoming a public figure and worried that his old friends at the Florida catering company where he worked would suffer repercussions.

Goff and his family were floored when they met Prouty, and they promised to keep their mouths shut. Goff’s mother gushed, “You changed the campaign! You changed history!”

Indeed, he did. We’ll never know for sure whether the president would have been re-elected without the footage, which crystallized perceptions of Romney as callous and unconcerned about almost half of the people he sought to lead. Obama was already ahead in battleground states before the feeding frenzy over the video and had a much better digital strategy and field organization.

But a fortnight later, the president lost the first debate to Romney. It could be argued that he needed the cushion of the 47 percent imbroglio (and a good answer about it at the end of the second debate) to regain momentum.

To me, this unanswerable question was less compelling than finding out Prouty’s motivation and how he fit into the “makers versus takers” theme of the campaign. As I researched his past, he seemed to be who he said he was: a blue-collar guy from Quincy, Massachusetts, whose life experiences equipped him with unusual empathy.

Prouty, who looked as if he was straight out of the white, middle-aged male demographic that voted overwhelmingly for Romney, described himself as a registered Independent. Except for attending one demonstration against the Iraq war, he hadn’t been politically active, and his actions weren’t driven by a grudge against Romney. He did put a big memory card in his Canon camera before working the bar at the Boca Raton event, convinced he might hear something different from what he saw on television.

As Romney talked, Prouty wasn’t most offended by the candidate’s comments on the 47 percent that later got all the attention. He was more disturbed by Romney’s retelling of a tour of a Chinese appliance factory that he said was surrounded by barbed-wire fences and guard towers and where young female workers were stacked “12 to a room” and paid “a pittance.”

“I was waiting for him to say, ‘And I knocked down those fences and improved the working conditions and it became more profitable because of it,’” Prouty told me. “But he never did.”

Instead, he said Romney seemed to suggest it was a good investment.

For two weeks, Prouty agonized over whether to post the recording. Finally, he looked in the mirror in the middle of the night and said to himself: “You [expletive] coward.”

The next day, under the assumed identity of a young Chinese female worker and the pseudonym Anne-onymous, he began posting short clips of the China portion of Romney’s remarks, with details darkened so that they weren’t traceable to the $50,000-a-head fundraiser.

Prouty made contact with Corn after the journalist reported that, in 1998, Brookside Capital Partners Fund, an affiliate of Bain Capital Partners LLC, which was run by Romney, bought 6.13 percent of Hong Kong-based Global-Tech Appliances. Prouty thought Global-Tech sounded just like the appliance factory Romney described at the fundraiser, though Romney’s campaign refused to comment.

After the furor last September, Prouty quit his job, delisted his phone number and hid. He wasn’t sure what to do with the rest of his life.

As I was leaving the inaugural ball that night, I suspected that Prouty wouldn’t stay underground until the publication of my book in June. Sure enough, Ed Schultz scooped me March 13, when Prouty surfaced on his MSNBC show.

My guess is that he went public because he needs a job, and I expect he’ll get one with the Pittsburgh-based Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, a United Steelworkers-backed nonprofit known for accusing the talk-show host Kathie Lee Gifford in 1996 of manufacturing her clothing line in sweatshops.

The institute, which sent undercover investigators to Global-Tech after seeing the clips posted by Anne-onymous, is the perfect place for Prouty, who can move from bartending to helping expose inhumane working conditions around the world.

He’s a humble guy and isn’t looking to cash in. He now takes his rightful place as an important footnote in U.S. history.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. His book, The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, will be published in early June. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Editor’s Note: Prouty’s interview with MSNBC’s Ed Schultz can be seen below:

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Photo: Screenshot via MSNBC

Why Democrats Must Get Smart On ‘Entitlements’

In a season of depressing budget news, the worst may have been that a majority of U.S. House Democrats signed a letter urging President Barack Obama to oppose any benefit cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlements. That’s the last thing we need.

To hold the line on harmful cuts to discretionary spending, Obama and the Democrats must educate the public about the necessity of entitlement reform. Otherwise, the poor and needy — largely spared by the automatic reductions under sequestration — will get hit much harder down the road.

Liberals are right to reject Republican proposals that would slash social-welfare programs even as they refuse to consider closing tax loopholes for the wealthy. And I agree that the sequestration will cut into the bone of important government functions and investments in the future.

That makes two more reasons to start talking seriously about how we will pay for the insanely expensive retirement of the baby boomers.

How expensive? Anyone reaching retirement age in the next 20 years (including me) will take more than three times as much out of Medicare as he or she contributed in taxes. By 2030, the U.S. will have twice as many retirees as in 1995, and Social Security and Medicare alone will consume half of the federal budget, with the other half going almost entirely to defense and interest on the national debt. It’s unsustainable.

If Democrats don’t want to talk about these programs, they can say goodbye to every other pet program. We can preserve Medicare in amber only at the expense of investments in pre-kindergarten programs or cancer research.

To reform entitlements, we should assess what these programs were meant to do in the first place.

For starters, Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t call them entitlements. Jimmy Carter’s administration borrowed the term from Anarchy, State and Utopia, a 1974 book by Robert Nozick, a political philosopher. “Entitlement” sounds selfish and at odds with the dignity and peace of mind that Social Security and Medicare are meant to provide.

It distorts the animating idea behind these programs, which is social insurance.

FDR didn’t have strong feelings about benefit levels, retirement ages or eligibility standards. He focused on what he called guaranteed return. By that he meant that having paid into the system through a kind of insurance premium (though in fact it was merely a payroll tax), Americans should rest easy that some money would be there for them if they lived long enough to need it. The whole point was “insurance against need.”

“Guaranteed return” and “insurance against need” should continue to be the two guiding principles of social-insurance reform.

“Guaranteed return” means no privatization or voucher system for these programs. FDR would have strongly opposed President George W. Bush’s plan to allow Social Security contributions to be invested in the stock market. He thought subjecting retirement income to what he called “the winds of fortune” was a breach of the social contract. Imagine what would happen to someone who retired in 1929 or 2008? No guaranteed return.

“Insurance against need” suggests keeping the focus on poor and middle-class recipients who depend on the money most. That means means-testing, giving wealthier retirees less. FDR, who favored high levels of taxation on the rich, would have been fine with taxing their benefits, too, as long as they were guaranteed to get at least something back.

Liberals generally oppose means-testing social-insurance programs. For decades they’ve argued that if the wealthy don’t get a heaping portion of Social Security and Medicare, it will undermine the political support of the programs and turn them into a form of welfare. Once that happens, the theory goes, the programs will be ended.

Like the word “entitlements,” this hoary idea should be retired. Social Security and Medicare are now so deeply in the marrow of the American middle class that they will never be seen as welfare. The question is not whether to reform them, but how.

Roosevelt structured Social Security as an insurance program with “contributions” through the tax code “so no damn politician can ever take it away.” He didn’t specify anything about the level of taxation or cost-of-living increases, which weren’t an issue in the 1930s but would become one shortly after World War II.

Today, only the first $110,000 in income is subject to the 7.65 percent tax that pays for Social Security and Medicare. Lifting the cap to higher income levels (say $250,000 or $400,000) could eventually generate hundreds of billions of dollars.

Republicans consider this a tax increase. That’s only true outside the context of these programs. The change could be structured so that no one paid in more than actuarial tables say they would take out. That would still raise billions and be consistent with the idea of paying for your own retirement if you can afford it.

For lifting the cap to have any chance, it would have to be matched by reforms such as adopting the chained consumer-price index, a new way to measure cost-of-living adjustments that Obama apparently favors. Liberals oppose chained CPI because it would theoretically result in lower benefits. But less frequent cost-of-living increases aren’t the same as cuts, especially if the current system is, as many experts believe, based on an inaccurate assessment of inflation.

Maybe there are better ideas for reforming social insurance. The point is, we better start talking about them. Otherwise, grandpa and grandma and their fellow Grateful Dead fans are going to eat all the food on the table.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo: Donkey Hotey via Flickr.com

‘They Deserve a Vote’ Can Be More Than Rhetoric

State of the Union addresses are traditionally laundry lists of policy proposals. President Barack Obama’s this week started that way, but it ended as the most emotional speech before a joint session of Congress in modern memory.

The theatrics of the event also introduced a new approach to framing the public debate that could yield unexpected victories for the president in the next year or two.

Obama made liberal use of what in Washington are sometimes called “Skutniks.”

This is a reference to Lenny Skutnik, a government employee who in 1982 dove into the icy waters to rescue passengers of an Air Florida flight that crashed into the Potomac River shortly after takeoff from Washington’s National Airport.

Two weeks later, President Ronald Reagan invited Skutnik to sit with the First Lady in the gallery of the House during his first State of the Union Address. A tradition was born.

Skutniks are usually sprinkled throughout the State of the Union. This time, Obama kept his in reserve until the end. This made for a powerful coda that mobilized several of the honored guests on behalf of the president’s agenda without seeming too political or sacrificing any of the emotional punch.

“If you want to vote no, that’s your choice,” the president said of his measure to reduce gun violence. “But these proposals deserve a vote, because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”

Obama went on to describe the shooting death, only a mile from his home in Chicago, of Hadiya Pendleton, who just three weeks before performed as a drum majorette in his inaugural parade. The president pointed to Hadiya’s parents in the gallery and said, “They deserve a vote.”

Then, as he acknowledged former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, herself a survivor of a shooting, and the families of other shooting victims, “they deserve a vote” became a powerful refrain, which he recited seven more times to rising applause and tears.

When the president, after saluting a nurse who saved children during Hurricane Sandy, got to a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor, the power of the voting idea came into sharper focus. The president explained how “a throng of people stayed in line” to support the 102-year-old woman as she braved a long wait to vote on Election Day and he described the cheers that erupted when she finally put on a sticker that read: “I voted.”

The grandeur of the democratic franchise — the foundation of our system — could be felt in the congressional chamber.

Some analysts said after the speech that the president lowered the bar on gun-safety legislation by stressing only the need for a vote, not passage of a bill.

That criticism ignores that the traditional way to block legislation in Washington is to prevent it from coming up for a vote. This technique allows opponents the satisfaction of successful obstruction without the accountability that comes from a recorded vote.

No vote means not having to worry about negative television ads in the next election for opposing a proposal popular with the public.

Until now, fighting filibusters in the Senate and obstructionist tactics in the Republican-controlled House has been, as they say in Washington, a heavy lift. The assumption has always been that these are “process questions” that bore the public.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to demand filibuster reform when he had the chance last month, and few people outside Washington noticed. Former senator Chuck Hagel, the president’s nominee to be Secretary of Defense, will now face a Senate filibuster, and that’s unlikely to be an issue in the heartland.

Hagel would be the first unpromoted enlisted man to head the Pentagon. If he’s blocked, Obama should rouse audiences of retired enlisted men with the message: “You deserve a vote.”

If voting is framed as a right — as a service that the public “deserves” — the politics of at least a few issues can change in subtle but significant ways.

There’s a big difference between aridly advocating filibuster reform and passionately demanding that members of Congress do what they are paid to do — vote.

Suddenly, when the bright-eyed volunteers from Obama’s new grassroots advocacy group, Organizing for Action, go door to door, their arguments no longer need to be about the confusing and often alienating details of legislation.

These thousands of door knockers (drawn from an email list of 16 million) don’t have to, say, defend an assault-weapons ban to voters who don’t support it or explain why increased border security without a path to citizenship for undocumented workers isn’t an answer to the immigration problem.

They can just ask voters to join them in supporting “a simple vote,” as Obama said.

The administration hopes this common-sense appeal to basic fairness can be applied not just to guns, but to other measures that are bottled up.

This approach provides a unifying theme for the many different policy proposals that the president advanced in his speech. He is telling the Republicans that if they want to reject ideas that the majority of the country supports, they must go on record as doing so.

Now he needs to maintain the pressure and argue that anything short of a roll-call vote violates lawmakers’ oaths to represent the people who elected them.

“They deserve a vote” might not work. It’s much easier to stop something in Washington than to start it.

But casting his program as a struggle for democracy was a smart way for the president to begin his second term.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak, Pool

Obama Replants Goalposts In Political Midfield

In the summer of 2011, when the “Grand Bargain” on deficit reduction failed, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner accused President Barack Obama of “moving the goalposts” — shifting his demands to the left.

After Boehner objected, Obama quickly moved the goalposts back and said he wanted to keep talking. But the Speaker thought it was too late and the deal collapsed.

Goalpost-shifting is back in style. Behind the soaring rhetoric of the inaugural address and his announcement of a bold immigration plan, the president is engaged in a carefully calibrated effort to move the debate away from the right side of the field.

In their interactions over the last two years, a chastened Obama started in the center and the Republicans started on the right, and the never-found compromise lay on the center-right.

Since winning re-election, Obama is starting on the center-left and the Republicans are moving toward the center-right. With any luck, they will find compromise in the center. The real center.

Of course, they won’t get there until they move beyond the bad blood of their end-of-the-year failure to do anything significant about the budget.

The House leadership says Obama delivered boring “I won” lectures to the Speaker and doesn’t have a clue about how to negotiate; the White House says the Speaker can’t deliver his own caucus.

Both sides have blown chances to strike a deal on favorable terms. Republicans should have done so in July, 2011 instead of holding out for a big 2012 electoral victory that never came. Democrats should have accepted Boehner’s December, 2012 offer of a 1-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases instead of taking the risk of allowing fights over budget deadlines to overshadow priorities such as immigration and gun safety.

Even as they lick their wounds after the election, Republicans should take comfort in how far they have shifted the center of gravity in U.S. politics over the last two years.

Consider the coverage of Obama’s second inaugural address. Pundits outdid each other in describing how liberal it was.

It wasn’t. With the exception of its first-ever mention of gay rights, the speech was essentially an eloquent rear-guard action defending the 20th-century consensus on the role of government.

The president celebrated achievements such as Social Security, Medicare, infrastructure, science, education and openness to immigrants that were backed by presidents of both parties for decades. They aren’t liberal ideas, but ones right down the median strip of U.S. politics.

Obama wrapped them in progressive rhetoric to be true to himself and his liberal values and — more pragmatically — to give himself cover with the left for the painful budget compromises to come.

In 2011, he had no such cover. Had he followed through with his plans to bargain away the chained consumer-price index (a different way of calculating inflation that could reduce Social Security benefits) and means-testing for entitlements, his support on the left would have cratered.

Now he has the strong backing he needs from his liberal base for serious compromise on immigration, guns and even entitlements.

Even that expression — liberal base — had been missing from U.S. politics for a long time. Get used to it.

Obama is getting set to pursue the same “base-out” strategy that worked for Ronald Reagan when he compromised on taxes, spending and immigration in the 1980s. The Republican president made concessions that would have been savaged by his party had they come from someone with less-stellar conservative credentials. Look at what happened to President George H.W. Bush when he raised taxes in 1991.

Liberals and moderates need to keep their expectations in check. There will be no progressive nirvana for the left and no Grand Bargain that satisfies the Simpson-Bowles crowd.

With the dip in the economy, long passes downfield aren’t likely. But field goals through some newly positioned goalposts should help the president — and the country — put a few points on the board this year.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

AP Photo/Isaac Brekken, File

Divining Obama’s Next Act From His First-Term Record

Presidential inaugurations are traditionally occasions for stroking one’s chin and offering sober assessments of what the president and the nation can accomplish in the next four years.

This is bound to be an exercise in futility. Four years ago, as Barack Obama took the oath, no one had heard of the Tea Party, Obamacare, the Deepwater Horizon, Abbottabad, the Arab Spring, Sheldon Adelson or the 47 percent. “Sandy” referred to beaches or a legendary pitcher for the Dodgers, not a devastating hurricane or a shooting at an elementary school.

It’s safe to predict that we will continue arguing in 2013 over the debt ceiling, gun violence and immigration. For everything else, the crystal ball for this year — not to mention the next four years — is cloudy.

So let’s look backward instead, to Obama’s record of success and failure. His partial successes — works in progress — offer the best clues to what he may yet achieve.

PolitiFact, a nonpartisan, Pulitzer Prize-winning website, has kept track of the 508 promises Obama made when he was running for president in 2008. This week, it released an “Obameter” report that rated more than two-thirds of his promises as “Promise Kept” or “Compromise,” a better average than voters cynical about campaign pledges had any reason to expect.

Remember Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope? Looking back, I was struck by the audacity of his five boldest 2008 promises: universal health care, ending the war in Iraq, killing Osama bin Laden, passing comprehensive immigration reform and creating a cap-and-trade system to reduce global warming. The president kept all but the last two promises, and by this time next year, he could be 4-for-5, with only carbon trading still outstanding.

Other, lower-profile “Promises Kept” testify to Obama’s vision of an activist government — not Big Brother, but “my brother’s keeper,” as he put it during the campaign.

Expanding broadband access, a credit-card bill of rights, increasing minority access to capital, closing the “doughnut hole” in the prescription drug plan, rural development grants, a best-practices list for businesses to accommodate workers with disabilities, boosting the Veterans Affairs budget for mental health: Page after page of popular ideas that went from campaign rhetoric to reality.

Most of the accomplishments look better up close than they do when depicted abstractly as merely “spending.” Familiarity with the particulars breeds respect for government, not contempt.

The list is a reminder of the stakes in 2012. Had the Republican nominee, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and his party won the 2012 election, hundreds of the “Promises Kept” would have become “Promises Repealed.”

The “Promises Broken” list is also instructive. It consists mostly of Obama initiatives rejected by Congress, including eliminating all oil and gas loopholes, taxing carried interest as regular income, ending no-bid contracts above $25,000 and dozens more.

Obama’s greatest failure was on housing. He pledged to create a $10 billion foreclosure-prevention fund, which he promised to expand to $75 billion. The aim was to help nine million homeowners. So far, fewer than one million have received assistance. The main culprits are the banks, which dragged their feet shamelessly on refinancing mortgages. But the administration never figured out the right incentives to accelerate the process.

The president’s promises on unemployment were made before the economy collapsed, so he can’t rightly be held accountable for them. (The bogus forecast by his economic team in 2009 that joblessness would quickly fall to less than 8 percent wasn’t a promise.) But he failed to fight hard enough in 2009 and 2010 — when he had a Democratic Congress — for the $60 billion infrastructure bank he promised and for small-business initiatives that might have led to more job creation.

The president also failed to lift the cap on payroll taxes for earnings above $250,000, which would raise enough money to secure Social Security for the foreseeable future. And his pledge to reduce health insurance premiums by an average of $2,500 a year per family was pure folly.

The category “In the Works” is more encouraging. Creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, reducing oil consumption by 35 percent by 2030 and closing the gun-show loophole are among the promises that have a real chance of being kept in a second term.

PolitiFact, a project of the Tampa Bay Times, also includes a “Truth-O-Meter” that aims to keep Obama and other politicians and public figures honest.

The president’s honesty scores over the last four years haven’t been perfect, but they are better than the average of politicians assessed by the site. To succeed in a second term, he’ll have to maintain that kind of performance. Straight talk is the only antidote to the arrogance and instinct to overreach that often afflicts re-elected presidents.

Obama won a second term even though he failed to restore strong economic growth. He won because of his vision of a government that tries to solve problems instead of just getting out of the way.

Even a Republican House and recalcitrant Senate won’t stop him from chipping away at his pledge list over the next four years. His success or failure will depend largely on external events we can’t predict.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo credit: AP/Jae C. Hong, File

Liberals Nip Obama As He Battles Republicans

You can already hear the rumbling in the distance — a train of noisy liberal Democrats barreling straight for the White House. They should arrive just in time for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

The president already has his hands full dealing with angry and unrealistic Republicans. Now he’s getting reacquainted with their counterparts on the left — a less ideologically inflexible bunch but not necessarily any more susceptible to reason.

Recognizing the enormous stakes in the 2012 election, liberals took the advice of Dr. Evil and “zipped it” during the entire campaign. They refrained from any criticism of the president, lest it help Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

For a party famous for its lack of discipline, that was impressive. So was the Obama campaign field organization. Humorist Will Rogers once said, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” Lately, given the disarray on the Republican side, Rogers might have swallowed hard and seen fit to declare himself a Republican.

If Democrats are better organized than in the past, they still have their foibles. Recall the crowd at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, loudly booing Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as he left the stage.

Villaraigosa, chairman of the convention, had just claimed that two-thirds of the delegates had approved by voice vote the reinstatement in the party platform of a provision supporting Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It was more like two delegates and maybe a third — about the same tiny level of support that welcomed Obama’s insistence that “God” be put back in the platform, too.

Before the campaign, liberals were hardly hesitant to express their disappointment with the president. Recall the liberal unrest of 2009 when Obama, bowing to congressional pressure, failed to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and neglected to support a public option in the Affordable Care Act.

Liberals crying “kill the bill” came dangerously close to derailing landmark health-care reform for which they had been fighting since the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party Convention of 1912. Obama rightly complained in response that too many of his supporters were letting “the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Now we’re about to see such imperfection under assault again. While Obama won strong Democratic backing for the so- called fiscal-cliff deal in both the Senate and the House, a chorus of liberal critics rose up to condemn his compromises.

They were particularly incensed that he agreed to raise the threshold on income subject to a higher tax rate from his oft- stated preference of $250,000 per family to $450,000 per family. Some news stories reported that Obama broke a campaign promise by abandoning the $250,000 level.

A few liberals even complained that Obama violated his principles by compromising. They must not have listened to him all year. One of his most important — and most frequently stated — principles is that compromise is essential to governing.

Having said that “not everybody gets a hundred percent of what they want” from negotiations, Obama surely would have doomed these and future negotiations by clinging to every jot and tittle of his opening offer.

Perhaps Republicans, too, have now been forced to take the plunge into pragmatism. One achievement of the fiscal-cliff deal was that it violated the “Hastert Rule,” named for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, that required “a majority of the majority” Republican caucus to proceed on legislation. Instead, Republicans split on the vote and the bill passed with Democratic support.

Just as Republicans must learn to live with tax increases, Democrats must learn to live with — and vote for — changes in entitlements. They should keep in mind that reforms such as a chained consumer price index, which alters the inflation calculation applied to Social Security, and means testing the benefits of wealthy retirees, do not threaten the social safety net.

Neither Franklin Roosevelt on Social Security nor Lyndon Johnson on Medicare was wedded to any of the particulars of those programs — only the principle of guaranteed support from the government.

The road ahead is paved with compromises that many Democrats won’t like. The president will stick to his refusal to negotiate with Republicans who want to hold an increase in the debt ceiling hostage to spending cuts. But he will have to negotiate over the sequester — the $1.2 trillion in cuts to defense and domestic programs scheduled to take effect in two months.

Decoupling the debt ceiling from the sequester will be daunting, if not impossible. Even if Obama succeeds, he will have to agree to cuts to entitlements or discretionary programs, a course many liberals oppose. They haven’t forgotten how Obama almost betrayed their interests in the failed “Grand Bargain” talks in July of last year.

If liberals are disappointed in Obama’s fiscal-cliff deal, imagine how they will feel in late February when he starts making tough choices on spending cuts. Liberals need to think harder about what their own long-term deficit reduction plan would be. Raising more revenue is necessary. It’s not sufficient.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak

To Get Better Gun Control, Don’t Use The Phrase

We can now be confident that last week’s massacre of 26 women and children at an elementary school in Newtown, CT, will not be swept under the carpet like so many mass shootings of the past.

President Barack Obama said Dec. 19 that he would act “without delay” after hearing from Vice President Joe Biden’s task force in January. We’ll probably spend much of the winter and spring debating Obama’s anti-violence proposal.

The question now is what the president — and the rest of us — can do to make sure that the National Rifle Association doesn’t once again intimidate enough members of Congress to gut the bill. The only answer is to build a smarter, more effective movement for common-sense gun laws than we have today, which means lots of meetings, marches, TV ads, door knocks and social- media campaigns.

Only the technology of movement-building has changed. Abolitionism, women’s suffrage, civil rights, conservation — every great stride forward in U.S. history has come from ordinary people defying the odds and bringing organized pressure to bear on politicians.

Any movement starts with its core legislative agenda. In this case, that means:

— Banning all assault weapons and high-capacity magazines for everyone except the military.

— Requiring instant background checks on all gun purchases, including those at gun shows and online.

— Providing law enforcement full access to all state and local databases on felons and the mentally ill.

— Making illegal gun trafficking a felony.

Until now, the NRA has disgraced itself by blocking each of these no-brainer reforms, mostly by putting tens of millions of dollars behind its lies. The best thing Obama did in his news conference was his attempt to drive a wedge between NRA members, most of whom favor reasonable gun-safety laws, and their hardline officers and board of directors.

With the NRA’s news conference on Dec. 21, we’re about to see if its tardy response to the Newtown shootings plays with the public. I have my doubts. Once a bully is exposed in harsh daylight, it can be harder to instill fear again.

To break the NRA’s stranglehold, reformers need to shake off the hangdog fatalism of the past. Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell often points out that he won three statewide elections against the gun lobby in a state that is second only to Texas in NRA membership.

Democrats are too worried about senators from Alaska, Arkansas, Montana, Louisiana and West Virginia up for re-election in 2014. Even if many rural counties are out of reach, dozens of others in suburban areas are full of moderate and compassionate people who have not been approached imaginatively on the gun issue.

Doing so requires reframing the debate with new language, always an essential weapon in politics. That means retiring “gun control” (the “control” part is threatening to gun owners) and replacing it with “gun safety,” “anti-violence regulation,” “military weapons for the military only” and — on every occasion — “common sense.”

Mom-and-apple-pie appeals always work best. So far, with anti-gun groups starved for money, they haven’t been widely tried.

In the meantime, liberals need to downplay accurate but politically useless arguments. It’s true that violent videogames don’t cause shooting rampages, that state laws allowing concealed weapons are a menace, and that guns in the home are more likely to be used in an accidental shooting than to protect against burglars. But emphasizing these points just exacerbates cultural differences and does nothing to advance next year’s legislation.

What would? The most heartening remarks of the week came from people such as West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, who was elected in 2010 with an ad featuring him firing a gun. Now he believes it’s time to rethink some positions. A couple of country stars on his side (hello, Toby Keith) would help. So would anti-violence Super PACs (yet to be formed) airing attack ads in suburban media markets that thrust the NRA on the defensive, where it has never been.

The NRA spent more than $11 million on behalf of candidates in the 2012 cycle, a relatively small sum by today’s standards. Let’s see what happens when it has to respond to a heavy ad barrage next year that includes families talking about their dead children.

The president’s role — better late than never — is to mobilize his base. His 2012 grassroots political organization, the best ever built, raised more than $1 billion, amassed more than 15 million email addresses, contacted tens of millions of voters and recruited a million volunteers in battleground states.

Now the Obama team has the passionate issue it needs to target and organize crucial suburban congressional districts. If all House Democrats vote for the landmark bill next spring — a reasonable supposition — Obama would need the support of 17 House Republicans for it to pass.

The only thing they or other members care about is their own political survival. So the question for them is this: What’s the use of a 100 percent NRA rating in the Republican primary if it’s going to doom you in the general?

I know, I know. This sounds like a fantasy. The gun lobby likes to point to the elections of 1994 and 2000, when several Democrats who backed the assault-weapons ban lost their seats. No federal gun laws have been passed since. New ones at the state level have all been for the worse.

But U.S. politics is in a state of transition. Obama won a solid majority in November. His army — not the NRA’s — is the one that’s on the march. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School was so unspeakable that it may yet help a whole new generation of political activists to find their voice.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster

Help Republicans Rescue Their Party From Itself

Cruelty, fear, cowardice, xenophobia and disrespect invaded the inner sanctum of the U.S. government this week, bringing embarrassment and dishonor to what was once the greatest deliberative body in the world: the U.S. Senate.

On Dec. 4, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, an 89- year-old Republican whose right arm was shattered in combat during World War II, was wheeled into the Senate chamber by his wife to rally support for a United Nations treaty that should have been entirely unobjectionable.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, negotiated under President George W. Bush and signed by more than 150 nations, takes a stand against “discrimination on the basis of disability” and in favor of “respect for inherent dignity.” It’s a largely symbolic document with implementation language that consists mostly of a weak recommendation for “due consideration” of its lofty aims. Even so, with U.S. leadership, it could promote compassion for the disabled in dozens of countries where they are cruelly shunned.

Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who long ago discredited himself as a serious person by championing junk science on climate change, said on the Senate floor, “This unelected bureaucratic body would pass recommendations that would be forced upon the United States if we were a signatory.”

That’s completely false. Not a single clause or phrase in the treaty impinges on national sovereignty, unless one believes — as some xenophobic neo-isolationists do — that the UN itself is a threat to the U.S.

Dole’s dramatic appearance was meant to advance the values of compassion and nondiscrimination, not the UN. He was trying to rally the 13 Republican senators needed to reach the two-thirds supermajority necessary for ratification. All Democrats voted in favor. In the end, only eight Republicans voted “aye,” almost all of them senators who have announced plans to retire or are in safe seats.

Sometimes-reasonable Republicans such as Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee were profiles in cowardice and voted no. They fear primary challenges in 2014 from radicals in their party. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, his common sense and conscience succumbing to right-wing nonsense in real time, changed his vote from “aye” to “nay” when he saw the measure would lose.

As the New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte pointed out, the only impact the treaty would have on Americans would be to make it easier for disabled people to live and work in other countries. Democratic senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 — which was signed by Republican president George H. W. Bush — said Dole had come to the chamber because “he wants to know that other countries will come to treat the disabled as we do.”

Imagine that: Taking a stand for basic human decency around the world.

Opposition to the treaty was led by two of the party’s ayatollahs: former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and the talk-show host Glenn Beck. None of their arguments made sense even on their own terms. It was especially disturbing that Santorum brought his daughter Bella, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder, into the debate. He argued, preposterously, that under the treaty the UN could order that she be left to die. Lest we forget, Santorum took a credible shot at the Republican presidential nomination this year and could be a contender for 2016.

The big question in U.S. politics is how to stop the Republican Party from sinking into the role of what Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal called “the stupid party.” The negative attention generated by the primary victories of radicals such as Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana — who both self-destructed this year over ugly comments about rape — might be good for Democrats in the short run. Long-term, though, a healthy two-party system is in everyone’s best interest.

The options for Republicans are simple. They can do nothing and allow the Santorums and Inhofes to hijack the party. Or they can move past the post-election rationalizations and create what might be called a “Real Republican” movement.

One immediate response should be to finance and repurpose the conservative super political-action committees that made such a splash in 2012. Unless the Supreme Court changes, those groups are going to be with us for a while; they might as well be put to good use.

Although Super PACs failed spectacularly in the general election, several shaped the outcome of the Republican presidential primaries. They need to be involved in the 2014 House and Senate primaries on behalf of fiscally conservative candidates, not fringe players badly out of touch with the mainstream of the country.

Eventually, both parties must look beyond their narrow self-interest and get serious about reforming the primary process. California, Washington state and Louisiana now have top-two systems in which the first- and second-place primary finishers, regardless of party, are on the ballot in the November general election.

The top-two arrangement, though it was defeated in a referendum last month in Arizona, has led to some strange repeat matches involving candidates from the same party, such as California Democratic representatives Howard Berman and Brad Sherman running against each other in both the primary and the general. (Sherman won.)

So far, there’s scant evidence of the new approach yielding more moderate candidates in the general election. But it’s early yet — California’s system debuted this year — and experiments in other states could lead to the loosening of the radical-Republican stranglehold on so many primaries.

The U.S. primary system, a product of the progressive movement, is only about 100 years old. It can be changed without messing with the Constitution. If we want to see fewer displays of craven behavior such as the rejection of the disabilities treaty, let’s rescue our politics from the forces of extremism.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo by Civil Rights via Flickr.com

Kerry Is the Right Choice To Lead U.S. Diplomacy

For all the talk of tax increases and debt-cutting, President Barack Obama’s biggest and most revealing decision this year may be which candidate he chooses to be his new secretary of state. It will tell us whether the president allows comfort to trump qualification.

The two candidates are Susan Rice, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, and Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Both would be impressive, though they bring different strengths.

Rice’s advantage is that she has a closer personal relationship with the president, making her better integrated in the administration’s policy-making apparatus. Kerry’s edge is that he’s a heavyweight who would be more effective representing the U.S. around the world.

Rice has the inside track for now, and she got an unintentional boost last week from Senator John McCain, who was shooting from the hip, as usual. McCain, who is Kerry’s old friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, hounded Rice mercilessly over the tragedy in Benghazi, Libya. Her only sin was that on the Sunday shows in September she conveyed exactly what she was told by the Central Intelligence Agency about the attack on the U.S. consulate.

Just before his first post-election news conference, the president heard that McCain and his Sancho Panza, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, were threatening to block Rice’s nomination with a filibuster. This made the president angrier than he has been in months, according to a senior White House official I spoke with. “For them to go after” Rice and “besmirch her reputation, is outrageous,” Obama said at the news conference.

Appearances’ Sake

Obama says he hasn’t made a decision. But rejecting Rice in favor of Kerry would make the president look like he’s buckling to pressure from McCain, the Republican opponent he defeated in the 2008 election. And yet, if how something looks is the issue — and appearances are critical in diplomacy — then Obama should choose Kerry.

Kerry, a prominent senator for 28 years, would sail through his Senate confirmation hearings. Rice would be pinned down not just by Benghazi but by some of her past statements, in particular these two: In 1994, when she served on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, she reportedly asked about the possibility of intervening in Rwanda: “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?”

In 2011, as European countries were pushing for a UN Security Council resolution creating a no-fly zone over Libya, she reportedly told France’s UN ambassador, Gerard Araud, that the U.S. wouldn’t be pulled into France’s war and she disparaged the conflict with an obscenity. Dredging up the latter incident is especially unfair, considering that Rice joined Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Council official Samantha Power to push the men in the administration to intervene in Libya. Still, Kerry’s colleagues wouldn’t hesitate to use any ammunition on hand against Rice.

Kerry would be much better received than Rice not just in the Senate, but in the rest of the world — which should be more than a little relevant in this decision. After 27 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he knows every player of consequence. His on-the-job training would be minimal.

Lest we forget, Obama probably wouldn’t be president without Kerry, who asked him to deliver the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention that started his career.

Loyal Soldier

In 2008, Kerry gave then-Senator Obama critical early support in his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. When Obama picked Clinton over him as secretary of state, Kerry was a loyal soldier. He helped persuade Afghan president Hamid Karzai to hold elections, smoothed over tense relations with Pakistan and shepherded the Start treaty through the Senate. He even played Mitt Romney in the mock debates this year.

Gratitude, loyalty and experience shouldn’t be the only factors in the president’s decision, but don’t they count for something?

If Kerry giving up his Senate seat jeopardized Democratic control of the Senate, the appointment would be too risky. But Democrats in the new Congress will have a five-vote margin in the upper chamber, and it’s unlikely a Republican could win a special election next year in Massachusetts.

This decision isn’t as much about Rice and Kerry and the political angles as it is about Obama and how he views governing.

We know that the president is often leery of having other big fish in his administration, less because of ego or insecurity than his insistence on harmonious policy making, free of turf fights. But comfort is overrated; Obama needs more “principals” (officials with their own power bases) to challenge him.

Before the UN, Rice’s experience consisted of being assistant secretary of state for Africa, which is important but not central to U.S. foreign policy. More recently, she won credit for helping to convince Russia and China to back sanctions against Iran and not oppose the bombing campaign against Libya. Yet when Russia and China vetoed a resolution aimed at Syria, Rice called the action “disgusting” and “shameful,” which was stronger than the White House’s “regrettable.” Diplomacy is all about word choice.

Having accompanied Hillary Clinton on international trips, I can testify to how helpful it is to have a woman in charge of public diplomacy. Most of the positive things going on among nongovernmental organizations are spearheaded by women, who would like seeing the third woman in a row (and second African-American by the name of Rice) in the top job.

Still, the next secretary of state may be called on to broker Mideast peace talks between Israel and Hamas or conduct high-stakes talks with Iran on its nuclear program. Wouldn’t it be better to have someone at the table with wide experience and the political clout to make things happen?

In 2008, Obama’s staff was dead set against Clinton getting secretary of state. Finally, Obama broke in sharply and said, “You guys are missing the fundamental point — she’s the most qualified candidate.”

This time, he is.

Photo: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

How Obama Can Heal His Rift With Business

U.S. presidents’ second terms often turn out to be failures in domestic policy, largely because lame ducks are almost by definition political figures of the past. Yet President Barack Obama’s winning coalition is aligned with the future of the country, giving him a fresh chance to lead.

To do so, he must repair his badly damaged relationship with the business community, which overwhelmingly supported Mitt Romney. It’s doable. From avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff, to an overhaul of immigration laws, to tax reform, there’s much more common ground than the combatants could acknowledge during the campaign.

The first task is for both the White House and the business world (Wall Street and Main Street) to acknowledge where it was wrong about the other side.

From the start, Obama failed to include enough business executives in his administration. His friend and senior advisor Valerie Jarrett once ran a Chicago real-estate company, but she was seen by business as more of a gatekeeper and liaison in the White House than a true friend. Otherwise, there was no one around the president who had met a payroll, unless you include aides who had run political consulting firms.

The President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness did some good, if little-noticed, work, but it was never fully integrated into the policy-making apparatus.

During his tenure as administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Cass R. Sunstein, a Harvard University law professor and now a fellow Bloomberg View columnist, eliminated more burdensome regulations than he was given credit for. Still, important business activity — from obtaining a government contract to getting a mortgage — remains mired in red tape.

For its part, business must stop acting whiny and petulant about the president. I’m astonished that so many wealthy people were wounded because Obama generically referred to “fat cats” three years ago on 60 Minutes. They need to grow up and recognize that he needed to position himself as the champion of the middle class to get re-elected.

Top executives also need to cut out the “Socialist” talk and admit that the president is anything but a radical. (Obama’s health care law, for instance, is pretty much the Bob Dole-Mitt Romney plan).

And just because the rest of the world reveres business leaders and pretends to listen to their wisdom, Obama doesn’t have to follow suit. He’s the president.

If chief executive officers can put aside their regrets over the outcome of the election, they can be important brokers between the administration and Republicans in Congress.

After Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles issued the recommendations of their bipartisan deficit-reduction panel in 2010, almost 100 CEOs signed a letter of support for their plan. This meant chief executives favored a mix of budget cuts and tax increases that was in many respects to the left of what Obama offered House Speaker John Boehner in the scuttled “grand bargain” talks of mid-2011. That Obama never fully embraced Simpson- Bowles for political reasons is now irrelevant. The executives who expressed their support for Bowles-Simpson two years ago need to come to Washington and stand behind the president, who has a mandate for his “balanced” approach.

In this mission, they can be joined by their erstwhile candidate. Obama said in his victory speech that he looked forward to sitting down with Romney (Franklin D. Roosevelt did something similar with his 1940 opponent, Wendell Willkie). Now that he no longer has to worry about the right wing of his party, Romney could help sell a deal to the business community.

The same goes for former president Bill Clinton, who can persuade Democratic interest groups that they have to make concessions. All hands will be needed on deck to keep the ship from going over the falls.

Comprehensive immigration reform is the next big item for business leaders. The tired Tea Party argument — that we must secure our borders first — is moot. The borders are quiet, with fewer illegal crossings than in decades. Because Republican House members are still worried about primary challenges from the right in 2014, they will need the full force of the business community in their districts to be mobilized around reform. Beyond their business interests, Republicans know that if they don’t increase their share of the Hispanic vote (Romney received about 27 percent), they are doomed as a party.

Finally, tax reform. Obama will use his re-election and the leverage of the Jan. 1 expiration of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts to insist that the marginal tax rates for the wealthy be allowed to revert to the higher levels that prevailed during the Clinton administration.

That doesn’t mean tax reform is dead. During the first debate, Romney offered an intriguing suggestion: Instead of getting bogged down in an impossible argument over ending cherished deductions, all such benefits could be capped at a certain percentage of a taxpayer’s income. Democrats are receptive to the idea and to radical tax simplification that would be a welcome relief even without huge reductions in rates.

I’m not being Rodney King, asking “Can we all get along?” Noisy partisanship is the norm in Washington. But if the White House can listen more, if business can complain less, and if the Republicans can develop a clear-eyed vision of the future of the party, 2013 could be a lot more productive than expected.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo by Matthew Knott via Flickr.com

If Elected, Moderate Mitt Will Disappear

You have to hand it to Mitt Romney and his team. Starting in the first debate, he pivoted almost effortlessly to the center, which is where elections are won. If he beats President Barack Obama, it will be because he Etch-A- Sketched his earlier positions and convinced enough people that he would be a moderate president.

Unfortunately, he has little chance of governing that way. We don’t know which Romney will show up on a given day, but we sure know which Republican Party would be in charge in Washington every minute. The Republicans have become the most extreme major political party in generations. They are tolerating Romney’s heresies this month only to gain power.

If a President Romney tried to govern in a moderate fashion by, say, allowing for some revenue increases to reduce the deficit, his base wouldn’t hesitate to savage him. Then he would be a man without a party, unless you include Senator Susan Collins of Maine. Were Senator Scott Brown to survive his challenge in Massachusetts (and Elizabeth Warren currently leads in the polls), the moderate Republican caucus in Congress might include just two senators, plus three or four House members. That’s it.

More likely, Romney as president would be a man with a strange crick in the neck, constantly looking over his right shoulder to see which pickup truck full of movement conservatives was about to run him over.

If you think he has the fortitude to stand up to people such as the anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist and Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who never hesitate to knife fellow Republicans for deviations, you haven’t been paying attention. Fortitude, constancy, commitment to a set of ideas — these aren’t likely to be the hallmarks of a Romney administration.

So we would have a president constantly buffeted by his base, which is far out of the mainstream. The events of this fall offer proof that Republicans hold extreme views that aren’t shared by most Americans. Otherwise, Romney would have been honest about his program and championed conservative issues instead of executing all those U-turns in the debates.

His real blueprint for governing, readily available from his public statements throughout the campaign, is almost completely at odds with the image he has sought to project before the huge audience of centrist voters who pay little attention to politics.

Instead of “loving regulation,” as he said in the first debate, a President Romney would gut what he called the “extreme” fuel-economy standards that are helping America move toward energy independence; repeal the Volcker rule and other sensible efforts to prevent another financial crisis; and relax emission rules for coal-fired plants, among hundreds of other favors for wealthy interests. Carte blanche for business is the soul of his otherwise soulless campaign.

In all three debates, Romney also claimed to “love” teachers and education. But as governor of Massachusetts, he slashed funding for the community colleges that train the middle-class workforce of the future. His election would end Obama’s only-Nixon-could-go-to-China progress on getting Democrats to sign on to his Race to the Top accountability standards for schools. Divided Democrats would unite to oppose Romney, dealing a severe setback to education reform. That’s why reformers such as Michelle Rhee and many of the hedge-fund managers bankrolling charter schools are strongly pro-Obama.

While Romney claimed in Denver to oppose cuts in Pell grants, the budget proposed by his running mate, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, plans 33 percent less for “education, training, employment and social services.” An additional 6 percent would be cut from “general science, space and basic technology” — a gut punch to the research institutions that are critical for a 21st-century economy.

Repealing Obama’s Affordable Care Act would mean people like my 18-year-old daughter, who has a serious pre-existing condition, will have trouble getting insured. Cutting $750 billion from Medicaid and block-granting it would lead to more sick, uninsured Americans going to the doctor later than they should, and to the closure of many inner-city hospitals and clinics. And that’s just part of more than $1 trillion in cuts to spending for the needy. There’s nothing moderate about Ryan’s plan to shred the social safety net.

Might President Romney tell Vice President Ryan he’s all wet? Don’t bet on it. No one in Washington thinks Romney would shelve the very document that helped convince him to put Ryan on the ticket in the first place. More likely, he would assign Ryan responsibility for supervising his budget.

Let’s say Romney and the Democrats split the difference and cut only 16 percent from education instead of 33 percent, or increase defense spending by only $1 trillion instead of $2 trillion. In what way is that moderate?

In the negotiations over the so-called fiscal cliff, President Romney would be trapped between anti-tax zealots who think they won the election, and deficit hawks willing to raise revenue to close the deficit. The whip hand that Obama has with the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts is much more likely to yield a workable compromise.

Then there’s the Supreme Court. Should a vacancy occur (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a survivor of pancreatic cancer, is 79), Romney would be compelled to nominate an abortion foe or suffer the wrath that conservatives inflicted on President George W. Bush when he tried to name Harriet Miers to the court.

That would mean a reversal of Roe v. Wade and a return of abortion policy to the states, many of which would ban terminating pregnancies.

To judge by the Boca Raton, Florida, debate this week, Romney’s foreign policy would resemble Obama’s. He claimed repeatedly to agree with the president, even arguing that he would tap global bodies such as the United Nations. So why is Romney surrounded by neoconservatives from the Bush administration who despise the UN and still believe the Iraq War was a good idea?

Obama won the second and third debates by calling Romney out on his Extreme Makeover. His best line was when he charged that Romney wanted to return to the foreign policies of the 1980s, the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.

Secret wars, back-alley abortions, cowboy capitalism. How moderate.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak

Rubio Breaks With Romney On China

Florida Senator Marco Rubio appeared this morning for coffee at Bloomberg View in New York and made a good impression, if you don’t count his failure to identify even one tax loophole or deduction he would eliminate to help pay for a 20-percent reduction in tax rates. But he didn’t make any news until he was on the way out and a bunch of reporters from other news organizations were out of earshot.

I asked Rubio if he thought it was a good idea for Mitt Romney to declare China a currency manipulator on day one of his presidency, as the former governor of Massachusetts has repeatedly promised to do.

“No, not really,” Rubio said. “It could kick off a trade war that would be bad for the economy.” As he walked away from the table, he added, “I agree with Obama on that one.”

Rubio is right, of course, as anyone in the business community — including Romney — understands. The only reason Romney hasn’t been pilloried for this bit of shameless pandering is that nobody expects him to keep his promise.

This view that he will back off immediately after taking the oath is simultaneously cynical and politically ignorant. Romney’s promise is so specific — and so lacking in escape hatches — that it’s a sure bet he would feel obliged to keep it.

Otherwise, within 24 hours of his swearing in he would be pilloried by the press for breaking a major promise. If he immediately confirmed all of the Democrats’ attacks about his lack of constancy, his honeymoon would be over before it even started.

Presidents break campaign promises all the time, of course, but there is no history of a president backing off a day-one promise.

President Bill Clinton had to retreat from a campaign promise to crack down on China in the wake of Tiananmen Square, vaguely suggesting he might not let China obtain most-favored-nation status. But the promise was so open-ended and unspecific that it was easily skirted.

Similarly, candidate Barack Obama promised in 2008 to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, but not on day one, and, after a lopsided vote in Congress in the late winter of 2009, it was not something he could do unilaterally.

By contrast, each of the executive orders Obama promised to sign on day one, including banning torture and loosening secrecy standards, he signed. Had he not done so, he would have been accused of breaking pledges even before the inaugural scaffolding was down. The same would happen to Romney should he renege.

We all know that the Chinese do indeed manipulate their currency, and calling them out on various trade abuses — as Obama did on tires — is important. The U.S. government must push back on a variety of fronts to keep the pressure on for fair trade.

But officially designating China as a currency manipulator — a formal finding — would be seen as a declaration of trade war, which is in no one’s interest. If you don’t believe me, check with Mayor Michael Bell and the business community of Toledo, Ohio, where thousands of new jobs have been created through joint ventures between U.S. firms and the Chinese. Those jobs — and thousands of others — would immediately be at risk.

Romney knows this perfectly well, as do all of his friends and business associates. But unlike Rubio, he will say anything to try to gain a political advantage. Why this doesn’t seem to bother his supporters is beyond me.

(Jonathan Alter is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)

Photo credit: AP/Jae C. Hong, File

Could Biden Be Obama’s Improbable Henry Higgins?

Who woulda thunk that Joe Biden, of all people, would drag a onetime rockstar president over the finish line? Only a few months ago, plenty of Democrats wanted the vice president dumped from the ticket in favor of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Now he is saving Barack Obama’s bacon.

Historically, vice-presidential debates have had little impact on the outcome of presidential elections, but there are exceptions and 2012 may prove to be one of them.

In 2004, the Democratic challenger, John Kerry, was up 8 points in several polls after besting President George W. Bush in their first debate. But then Vice President Dick Cheney drove home Bush’s national-security message in his debate with John Edwards and won on points, not likeability, which was never Cheney’s strong suit. Bush’s polling stabilized and he went on to win a close election.

Unless Obama lays eggs in the two next debates, I suspect the same dynamic will be at work this year. Biden may have irritated some voters — the instant polls were split — and Paul Ryan’s smooth and intelligent performance makes him a likely Republican nominee for president in the future. But the big takeaway from this contest will be that Biden stopped, or at least slowed, Mitt Romney’s momentum, re-energized panicky Democrats and scored heavily with two key constituencies: senior citizens and women.

The contrast between Biden’s performance and that of his boss in Denver a week earlier couldn’t have been starker. Where Obama never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity (as former Israeli Foreign minister Abba Eban liked to say about the Arabs), Biden jumped on every one of Ryan’s arguments.

When Obama’s debate-prep team analyzes which of Biden’s counterpunches landed best with focus groups, the president will cherry-pick the answers and try to deliver a calmer, more presidential and more selective version of his running mate’s performance.

This isn’t to claim that Biden “won”; unlike the presidential forum in Denver, the verdict on the Kentucky contest broke down along party lines, though the conservative pundit Dick Morris wrote in a mid-debate Twitter post: “can’t believe how weak Ryan is.”

Morris knows that Romney must hold senior citizens, the only age group that went for John McCain in 2008. Unfortunately for the Republicans, Biden clarified for seniors (most of whom turn out to vote) that Democrats are the protectors of Social Security and Medicare while Republicans consistently favor privatizing and voucherizing those hugely popular programs.

When Biden spoke about Medicare at the debate, he turned straight to the camera and reminded seniors that Obama’s health care law had brought them $600 a year in reduced prescription-drug costs (by closing the so-called donut hole, a term that may be unclear to most voters, but not to the elderly) and by providing coverage for preventive-care visits.

The Republicans will call that pandering, but it no doubt sounded good in Florida. There, Ryan’s history of championing George W. Bush’s privatization plan in 2005 is scary for seniors who, then as now, don’t want their retirement savings exposed to the fluctuations of the stock market. Biden’s “c’mon, guys” common-sense appeal probably scored with voters wondering whom to trust on this issue.

The same dynamic was at play on abortion, which wasn’t mentioned in the presidential matchup in Denver and is of critical importance to undecided women voters who had been moving toward Romney in the last week.

Republicans may say this is a tired evergreen for Democrats and that Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush won with anti-abortion views. But when the health of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a 79-year-old survivor of pancreatic cancer, is all that stands between women and the loss of their reproductive freedom, that issue has returned to the forefront of the campaign, partly thanks to Biden.

It is likely that Romney, whose views on abortion have been all over the place, will have to say clearly in his second debate with Obama whether his presidency would mean a reversal of Roe v. Wade.

Biden’s other achievement was to expose some of the hypocrisy at the heart of the Republican argument. He nailed Ryan for seeking stimulus money for his congressional district while railing against the program, and for assailing a lack of security at U.S. embassies after he voted to reduce the relevant funding by $300 million.

Romney will continue to gallop toward the center, where presidential elections are won. It will be up to Obama to use some of Sheriff Joe’s ammo to cut him off at the pass.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

How Small Money Can Matter Again In Politics

A funny thing’s happening on the way to Nov. 6. The billionaires trying to buy the U.S. election with contributions of $1 million, $10 million or even $100 million aren’t succeeding.

If trends continue and the Democrats have a good year (still a big if), the notion that in order to win candidates must accept gobs of money from super-political action committees will be discredited.

Then we’ll see a small opening for a practical solution to our corrupt politics that would require no spending limits, no barring of super-PACs and no constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

This solution would free at least some candidates for federal office from dispiriting and corrupting lives of endless fundraising and legalized bribery. It would strike a blow for democracy, localism and choice (always a crowd-pleaser for the Republicans) in our elections.

It’s important to understand why the deluge of super-PAC contributions — and those from shadowy 501(c)4 groups, which don’t require disclosure — isn’t working as well as Republican strategists Karl Rove and the Koch brothers or the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson may have hoped. (The same goes for the relative pikers on President Barack Obama’s side, such as the Priorities USA super-PAC).

The reason is that big money in politics has a competitor: small money in politics. Even though big money is winning this year — it accounts for more than 75 percent of donations — small money raised on the Internet is better adapted to the 21st century political battlefield.

Big money is used mostly to pay for negative television ads. These spots can still be potent and force the other side to raise enough money to rebut them. But Americans, especially younger voters, aren’t watching TV the way they used to. They’re time-shifting programming and are increasingly cynical about ads. With all the airwave pollution, saturation levels are reached earlier, especially if the messages in the ads are at odds with what’s going on in the news.

Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, and several trailing Republican Senate candidates are finding this out.

Super-PACs can dominate the air war, but they have trouble buying ground troops. Political strategists know from experience that phone banks and canvass teams made up of low-wage hired help are far inferior to those using volunteers sincerely trying to persuade voters.

The reason the Obama campaign sends out so many irritating requests for $3 or $5 donations is that these solicitations do more than just raise cash. Once millions of small donors have a little skin in the game, they’re much more likely to assist with registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. This willingness to help can’t be purchased by super-PACs at any price.

I’m not suggesting that small donations are competitive yet. In House races in 2010, only 8 percent of contributions were for less than $200. But with a boost, small money can play with the big boys.

In “Empowering Small Donations in Federal Elections,” Adam Skaggs, of the Brennan Center for Justice, and Fred Wertheimer, the founder and director of Democracy 21, offer a voluntary plan based on the very successful model adopted in New York City. Contributions of $250 or less would be matched by federal funds at a 5-to-1 ratio. Thus, $250 would yield $1,250, which would be the upper limit on allowable contributions for the candidates who participate. (That cap might be too low, but let’s not quibble.)

The system would require a certain threshold of in-state donations to encourage local participation and would be capped at $2 million for a House campaign and $10 million for a Senate race. The total price — $700 million a year — is an enormous bargain for taxpayers because the changes would help prevent big donors from buying tens of billions in tax breaks, subsidies and other favors. If the Republican Party is serious about removing the special-interest breaks that would be necessary to achieve comprehensive tax reform, it will need to be shielded by matched financing of elections.

Candidates who opt out could continue to operate under the old system, as did Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York (the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP). But there might be a political penalty to pay for those who go it alone. In Massachusetts this year, both Senate candidates, the incumbent Republican Scott Brown and his Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren, agreed to keep super-PAC money from soiling their race.

Lest you think that federal legislation is a pipe dream, consider that public financing of general elections was accepted by all major party presidential nominees from 1976 until 2008, when Obama opted out after the outdated dollar limits in the matching funds turned out to be lower than the amounts he was raising on his own. This places a special responsibility on the president to help restore a system he helped destroy.

So far, 15 states and several cities have public financing systems, some more effective than others. Republicans, who are often philosophically opposed to this idea, have been especially big supporters of its application in Connecticut, where Republican Governor Jodi Rell was elected in 2006 with small- donor contributions, and in Arizona, where Tea Party candidates used the public financing system to unseat establishment Republican primary candidates. When their interests matched, Tea Party types forgot their ideological objections, just as they have in supporting Medicare. This might offer some hope of getting a bill through Congress.

Small-donor reform also loosens the grip of corporations and unions. Romney was right when he said this week that “we simply can’t have a setup where the teachers unions can contribute tens of millions of dollars to the campaigns of politicians and then those politicians, when elected, stand across from them at the bargaining table, supposedly to represent the interests of the kids.”

Then there’s the wasted time for politicians. Because Romney is so reliant on big donors, he has to spend precious hours at high-end fundraisers instead of campaigning among all voters. The now-infamous video of him dissing the “47 percent” might have taught him the dangers of the system. Obama, too, is distracted by having to show up at dozens of fundraisers. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan tapped public financing and attended none.

Finally, the do-gooders have to stop calling this “campaign finance reform” or “public financing.” That’s bad branding. Next year, after the fiscal cliff is avoided, the hard work of building a movement for small-donor reform will have to begin. Power to the pea shooters.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Photo by “401(K) 2012” via Flickr.com