Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Few Days Off

The "Wake Up America!" set - consisting of boisterous bloggers, caustic commentators, pontificating political opportunists and whacko wing nuts - has been in full fury recently because President Obama engaged in an activity they found deeply disturbing.

He went on vacation.

Self-appointed critics of every stripe whined that Obama should be at his Oval Office desk 24/7 working on an economic recovery plan. Or that he should have called Congress back into session to assist him.

Just what we need: an instant replay of the debt ceiling debacle that would lower government approval levels to single digits.

Wisely, the President ignored this babble, packed up his family and fled to Martha's Vineyard, where the Obamas spent $50,000 of their own money - big bucks for an alleged socialist - to rent an estate for 10 days.

And why not?

First and foremost, he didn't disappear into the north woods. The White House travels with the President whether he's in Martha's Vineyard or Toad Suck, Arkansas. His military, economic and political advisors are there to brief him each and every day. The nuclear football is always nearby.

Second, it's not for nothin' that every politician on The Hill flees town in August when the district is a steaming cauldron of heat and humidity. Think Guatemala with monuments.

Third, every First Family needs to occasionally escape the confines of the White House, a place President Truman once called "the crown jewel of the American penal system." We forget that Obama, or any president for that matter, is also a husband and a father who needs time to reconnect with his wife and children.

The only thing I don't understand is why the President has embraced golf as a form of relaxation, a game more frustrating than dealing with a room full of gimlet-eyed Republicans.

Last but not least, President Obama has taken 61 vacation days after 31 months in office, according to CBS. At this point in their presidencies, George W. Bush had spent 180 days at his ranch where his staff often joined him for meetings. And Ronald Reagan had taken 112 vacation days at his ranch.

Obama has been criticized for vacationing in opulent surroundings, especially at a time of economic distress. Better he would be holed up in a Motel 6 on the Beltway, I guess.

But let's set the record straight. FDR, even during the Great Depression, vacationed at his colonial mansion in Hyde Park, N.Y., and used U.S. Navy ships for fishing expeditions.

Ike used to hang out at the Augusta National Country Club in Georgia, perhaps the most prestigious and expensive private club in the United States, playing golf while the Soviets aimed hundreds of nuclear missiles at us.

JFK relaxed at the family estate in Hyannis Port, Mass. Nixon had his western White House in San Clemente. LBJ owned a massive ranch in Texas as does George Bush. Reagan had his Santa Barbara ranch.

George H.W. Bush has his compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Even Jimmy Carter retreated to his peanut farm in Georgia.

And each time they went on vacation, there was a crisis brewing somewhere.

Obama doesn't own an expensive vacation estate or a compound or even a condo. So he rents. Think of it as an economic stimulus package.

Having seen a number of presidents emerge from four to eight years in office stooped and gray, it is sheer folly to begrudge the leader of the free world a few days off.

Most Americans understood that in the past. Take the case of Herbert Hoover, as recounted by George E. Condon Jr. in the Atlantic.

Hoover sought the Navy's help to give him some respite during the depths of the Depression. Almost on the spur of the moment, the White House announced in March 1931 that "to secure a short rest" Hoover was going to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

His mode of transportation was to be the newly modernized battleship Arizona. Its trial run became a luxury cruise for the president.

Somewhat defensively, the announcement noted "this will be the first vacation of the president since assuming office with the exception of a seven-day fishing trip to Florida something more than a year ago."

Time magazine described Hoover as "a very tired man" at the outset of the cruise. But after many "long naps," exercise on the deck with a medicine ball, and dinners (in formal wear) accompanied by an orchestra, Hoover was rejuvenated.

Time described him as "a new man physically ... his cheeks were a pinkish tan (and) lines around his eyes had been smoothed out."

They don't report stories like that any more.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

For Whom the Pols Poll

President Obama's approval rating has fallen to an all-time low,
sinking below 40% for the first time, according to a recent Gallup

New data showed that 39% of Americans approve of Obama's job
performance, while 54% disapprove. Both are the worst numbers of his

Yet a scant three months ago, Obama’s approval rate was at 56 per
cent, the highest for the President since 2009.

The job picture was just as bleak. The economic news was just as bad.
His relationship with the Republicans was just as sour.

So why were his numbers so much better in May? Three little words:
Osama bin Laden. The death of the Al Qaeda leader at the hands of
U.S. forces in Pakistan, resulted in a major popularity boost for the
commander in chief.

From this we can extrapolate the following:

(1) Perhaps if Mr. Obama would spend more time playing whack-a-mole
with terrorists, rogue nations, European banks, Wall Street critics,
intransigent Republicans and Tea Party activists, his reelection
would be assured.

But more accurately, (2) polling is rarely the measure of a man.
Instead it is a snapshot in time that can change rapidly and
dramatically as the political winds shift.

Indeed, Obama’s approval ratings were higher than God’s in May. A
poll conducted by the research firm Public Policy Polling found that
52 percent of Americans approved of God's overall dealings, four
points below Obama.

God's approval rating exceeded that of House Speaker John Boehner,
R-Ohio, as well as both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. But it
lagged behind Oprah Winfrey who scored a 60 per cent approval rating.

This means, of course, that an all-seeing, all-knowing God not only
has a sense of humor but He believes in our First Amendment right to
free speech. Otherwise, the Public Policy poll would have resulted in
plagues of locusts and frogs.

For us mortals, polls remain an enigma, worshiped by journalists,
candidates and political scientists, but correctly viewed with
skepticism by the public.

President Obama’s roller coaster popularity ride is a good example.
So is former President George Bush whose disapproval rating at one
point was 71 per cent, making him the most unpopular chief executive
in modern history.

But after he left the White House and published his memoirs, Bush’s
popularity soared to 45 per cent. Either he was misjudged or we are a
very forgiving country. I suspect it was the latter.

Some polls produce worthless information. Take the case of Texas Gov.
Rick Perry who rode roughshod into the presidential rodeo last week.
In multiple polls, Perry trails Obama by an average of 11 percentage
points. Bad news for Republicans? Not necessarily. Perry lacks name
recognition outside of Texas. Check back in another month to see how
he fares.

Polls are often more useful for a candidate to judge the electorate
than the other way around.

Consider that President Obama and his opponent probably understand
that they face an uphill battle convincing the American public that
either one knows how to run the country.

A recent CNN poll asked voters if the policies proposed by Republican
leaders in Congress would move the country in the right direction.
Fifty eight per cent said no.

Asked if policies proposed by Democratic leaders would move the
country in the right direction, 53 per cent said no.

The overall Congressional approval rate was 13 per cent.

Let the campaign promises begin.

Some polls simply get it wrong. The most famous case involves the
Literary Digest which conducted a poll regarding the likely outcome
of the 1936 presidential election.

The poll showed that the Republican governor of Kansas, Alf Landon,
would likely be the winner.

But come November, Landon carried only Vermont and Maine; U.S.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt carried the then-46 other states.

The magazine was discredited because of the poll and was soon

What happened? The magazine had surveyed its own readers, a group
with disposable incomes well above the national average of the time
(shown by their ability to afford a magazine subscription during the
Great Depression). It also used two other readily available lists:
that of registered automobile owners and that of telephone users.
Again, because of the Depression, both groups had incomes well above
the national average of the day, which resulted in lists of voters
far more likely to support Republicans.

When it comes to polls, remember the sage words of Robert Orben:
“Do you ever get the feeling that the only reason we have elections
is to find out if the polls were right?”

Monday, August 01, 2011

Commentary Without Class

It is almost beyond comprehension that the blowhards who pass for
political commentators in this day and age could not let the recent
Norwegian tragedy pass without making tasteless and asinine remarks.

I speak in this instance of Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, the
Tweedledee and Tweedledum of punditry for whom nothing is quite as it

Here is Beck’s take on the carnage in Norway, in which a crazed
gunman on a delusional anti-Muslim mission set off a bomb in downtown
Oslo, then hunted down and killed 68 youths at a camp run by the
country’s Labor Party:

"There was a shooting at a political camp, which sounds a little
like, you know, the Hitler youth. I mean, who does a camp for kids
that's all about politics? Disturbing."

Not as disturbing, of course, as his insensitivity. And, as it turns
out, his hypocrisy.

To answer his question, who does a camp for kids about politics?
Well, for one, conservative columnist Jeff Lukens holds one in Tampa,
Fla. And guess what? It’s based on Beck’s very own 9/12 Project and
aligned with the “Tea Party” values that Beck espouses.

Then there is Camp USA for middle school students which advertises
itself as a bi-partisan tour of the political world to inspire
participants to become more informed, engaged citizens.

There are countless others that embrace many philosophies.

But let’s for a moment assume Beck forgot there is a political camp
for kids based on his own world view and turn to the issue of Norway
and the Nazis.

Norway was invaded by Hitler’s armies in 1940 and occupied for the
next five years. During that time, starvation was not unknown and
thousands of Norwegians were shipped to concentration camps or killed
outright. Many more fled the country and became refugees.

Against this background, Beck has the audacity to suggest Norway is
running youth camps inspired by the Nazis.

Torbjørn Eriksen, a former press secretary to Jens Stoltenberg,
Norway's prime minister, told London’s Daily Telegraph: "Young
political activists have gathered at Utøya (where the shootings took
place) for over 60 years to learn about and be part of democracy, the
very opposite of what the Hitler Youth was about. Glenn Beck's
comments are ignorant, incorrect and extremely hurtful."

It’s hard to imagine Beck could stoop lower.

Bill O’Reilly, meanwhile, was admonishing the media for describing
Anders Behring-Breivik, the admitted shooter, as a “Christian

"No one believing in Jesus commits mass murder," he said. "The man
might have called himself a Christian on the net, but he is certainly
not of that faith...we can find no evidence, none, that this killer
practiced Christianity in any way."

He said that the reason the media was calling Breivik a Christian was
because "the Left wants you to believe that fundamentalist Christians
are a threat just like crazy jihadists are."

In fact, the police described him as a Christian as did Breivik
himself. He wrote that he does not have a "personal," religious
relationship with Christ (but) believes in Christianity "as a
cultural, social, identity and moral platform," which he says "makes
me Christian."

We’re in murky waters here. It is not unusual for extremists to wrap
themselves in the cloak of religion to justify their actions.

Breivik did it. So did Osama bin Laden. But whether or not they were
true believers is known only to God, not Bill O’Reilly.

And to suggest that “no one believing in Jesus commits mass murder”
is absurd on its face. History is full atrocities committed by
Christians from the Crusades to the Inquisition to the witch hunts in
Europe and the New World. All conducted in the name of Jesus Christ.

While O’Reilly’s contends there is a move to paint fundamentalist
Christians as dangerous, there is plenty of evidence to suggest there
are reasons for concern.

A group called the Army of God has been targeting abortion clinics,
doctors and homosexuals for the last 25 years. The motive for
anti-abortionist Scott Roeder to murder Wichita doctor George Tiller
was a belief that abortion is criminal and immoral, and that this
belief went "hand in hand" with his religious beliefs.

Hutaree, a Christian militia group based in Adrian, Mich., had nine
of its members indicted on charges of seditious conspiracy to use of
improvised explosive devices, teaching the use of explosive
materials, and possessing a firearm during a crime of violence.

Perhaps these two gentlemen should forgo trying to politicize a
tragedy whose root cause is madness.