Today is Wednesday, which means it's party time at the White House! The Associated Press explains:
Since the presidency changed hands less than six weeks ago, a burst of entertaining has taken hold of the iconic, white-columned home of America's head of state. Much of it comes on Wednesdays.
The stately East Room, where portraits of George and Martha Washington adorn the walls, was transformed into a concert hall as President Barack Obama presented Stevie Wonder with the nation's highest award for pop music on Wednesday.
A week before that, the foot-stomping sounds of Sweet Honey in the Rock, a female a cappella group, filled the East Room for a Black History Month program first lady Michelle Obama held for nearly 200 sixth- and seventh-graders from around the city.
Cocktails were sipped during at least three such receptions to date, all held on Wednesdays.
We do not begrudge the president his fancy cocktail parties. Indeed, if anyone in the White House is reading this, please add us to the invitation list.
But there is a dissonance here that is rather hard to miss. The same president who last month lectured private-sector executives, "You can't get corporate jets, you can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer's dime," is living large in the Executive Mansion that we taxpayers have generously provided him. (And he is being celebrated for it by the AP, which in a recent court case, The Associated Press v. All Headline News Corp., describes itself as "the 'gold standard' of objective journalism." Apparently the AP filed this suit before it devalued its currency.)
Meanwhile, the economy shrinks and the stock market plummets. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is down more than 50% since its October 2007 peak, and some 30% just since Election Day*. The president's response? As we noted yesterday, he dismisses this relentless decline as "fits and starts." He also, believe it or not, is dispensing investment advice, as ABC's Jake Tapper reports:
President Obama told Americans to take a look at investing in the stock market [yesterday] afternoon, a remarkable utterance for an American president, especially as the Dow Jones Industrial Average proceeds on its course Southward.
"What you're now seeing is . . . profit and earning ratios are starting to get to the point where buying stocks is a potentially good deal if you've got a long-term perspective on it," the president said on a day that trading continued to hover under 7,000.
The president predicted that Americans' consumer confidence would improve as they see the stimulus bill "taking root."
By "profit and earning ratios," one presumes Obama meant price/earnings ratios--a terminological mistake that does not boost one's confidence in his investment recommendations. As for the so-called stimulus as confidence booster, suffice it to note that the Industrial Average closed at 7933 on Feb. 12, the day before Congress passed the bill. Yesterday it closed at 6726, a decline of more than 15% in less than three weeks.
In those three weeks, something else happened: Obama gave an address to Congress in which he made clear that he has no intention of curtailing his appetite for higher taxes and bigger government. With the president greedily eyeing the shrinking private economy, and Congress showing little sign so far that it will be an effective check on his ambitions, it's little wonder investors are fearful.
In a CNN.com commentary, David Gergen, the farthest thing you can find from an ideological or partisan extremist, faults Obama for losing focus:
In trying to do so many big things at once, is he putting economic hopes at growing risk? . . . It isn't popular to say right now but there is growing reason to question whether this is the wisest course in terms of our most urgent and pressing challenge: a collapsing world economy. . . .
We are in the midst of a global crisis, one that demands an intense focus and daily leadership by the President of the United States. There is no doubt that President Obama is paying close attention: not only is he receiving a daily economic briefing--new at the White House--and in his first three weeks in office, he secured passage of a massive stimulus bill. Give him ample credit. But there is also no doubt that his ambition for reforms in other areas do not allow him to give the economy his full attention.
This Thursday, for example, he will hold a health care "summit" at the White House, as he launches a year-long campaign to achieve what no other president has ever done: a complete overhaul of the health care system. He deserves credit for trying, but in the Clinton years, a similar such effort consumed enormous energy and time by the President and most of his domestic team. And this same White House wants to achieve an overhaul of energy as well this year--a project that is similarly massive and time-consuming. In my own experience at the White House stretching back to the early 1970s, a President and his team can be successful in addressing one big major crisis when they apply laser-like focus, but when juggling two, three or four at a time, they usually bungle one--and often more than that.
To which we would add that the "crises" the president's health-care and energy initiatives purport to address are not really crises at all. The problem of the uninsured is a chronic one; global warming is a speculative one. Neither affects Americans with anything like the breadth or immediacy of the recession and market downturn.
It may be said in Obama's defense that the economic crisis is not of his making, and that some of his political opponents are opportunistically seeking to take advantage of it for their own ideological or partisan purposes.
If this sounds familiar, it is because these same things were said--including by this column--in defense of President Bush during Hurricane Katrina. Whatever the merits of those points then, it is fair to say that most Americans were not so charitable. Bush never shook the perception that he was incompetent and out of touch.
Of course, Obama, as a new president succeeding an unpopular one, has a reservoir of public goodwill on which to draw. The Wall Street Journal reports that the president "enjoys widespread backing from a frightened American public for his ambitious, front-loaded agenda, a new poll indicates." His job-approval rating is 60%, and 56% approve of his job "in handling the economy."
But public opinion can be fickle. Bush had approval ratings in the 90% range after 9/11, and in early 2003, the liberation of Iraq commanded 70% support. Before Obama sips his first cocktail tonight, he might want to reflect on why George W. Bush's presidency seemed, by the end, to have been a political failure. Certainly it was not for a lack of ambition.
* Homer nods: not 35%, as we stated in yesterday's item (since corrected).
How Stimulating
It's not clear yet whether the so-called stimulus will avert catastrophe, as President Obama promised it would, but it is already putting people to work, as CNN reports:
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, "The work begins today in Montgomery County, Maryland, where a work crew is starting on a project to resurface Maryland State Highway 650--a very busy road that has not been fully repaired in 17 years."
The resurfacing contract is going to a Pennsylvania-based family-owned company, American Infrastructure, LaHood said.
He said the project will support 60 jobs. "And that's how we're going to get the country back on its feet," LaHood added.
Wow, 60 jobs! Of course, $787 billion divided by 60 comes to $13,116,666,666.67 a job. Yet while that may seem high, remember that it can only go lower.
Talk About Your Fits and Starts
When scandal-plagued Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointed Roland Burris to President Obama's erstwhile Senate seat, Democrats vowed never to seat him. Then they seated him. Then they demanded his resignation. Now, as the Associated Press reports, Burris "seems to have weathered a storm of controversy":
Fellow Democrats are no longer demanding that Sen. Roland Burris resign. The new Illinois governor has stopped calling for a special election to replace him. And party leaders who control the Senate and Illinois state Legislature are reluctant to risk losing his seat to Republicans.
"He's not going to go anywhere. I'm convinced of that," said congressman Phil Hare, one of the first Illinois Democrats to call for Burris to step down.
Back and forth, back and forth. It's like watching a tennis game, only without the love.
Think Different. The Taliban Do.
"Microsoft founder head Bill Gates has banned the use of products made by arch-rival Apple from his house, his wife has revealed," London's Daily Mail reports. Melinda Gates "told Vogue magazine that the couple's three children Jennifer, 13, Rory, 10 and Phoebe, seven, are not allowed Apple products":
"There are very few things that are on the banned list in our household," she said.
"But iPods and iPhones are two things we don't get for our kids."
Like any forbidden fruit, however, Mrs Gates, 44, admitted that some Apple products do have the power to tempt her.
"Every now and then I look at my friends and say 'Ooh, I wouldn't mind having that iPhone,' " she admitted.
But look who does have one, according to the Associated Press:
Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef is a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan. He spent almost four years in Guantanamo. He wears a black turban, has a thick beard and is never without his Apple iPhone.
The ultra-conservative Taliban banned modern technology like the Internet and TV during its harsh 1996-2001 rule, but those items have boomed in Afghanistan since the regime's 2001 ouster, helping to bring the country into the 21st century.
Zaeef, who reconciled with the Afghan government after being released from U.S. custody, says he uses his iPhone to surf the Internet and find difficult locations, employing the built-in GPS. He even checks his bank account balance online.
"It's easy and modern and I love it," Zaeef said as he pinched and pulled his fingers across the iPhone's touch screen last week. "This is necessary in the world today. People want to progress."
It isn't clear if Zaeef lets his wife (or wives) have an iPhone, but if he does, that means the Taliban are more progressive when it comes to women's rights than Bill Gates is.
Shooting Verts
CNN reports on the latest innovation in firearm technology:
Three years ago, Phillip Loughlin made a choice he knew would brand him as an outsider with many of his fellow hunters:
He decided to shoot "green" bullets.
"It made sense," Loughlin said of his switch to more environmentally friendly ammo, which doesn't contain lead. "I believe that we need to do a little bit to take care of the rest of the habitat and the environment -- not just what we want to shoot out of it."
Lead, a toxic metal that can lower the IQs of children, is the essential element in most ammunition on the market today.
If anything, CNN understates the dangers of old-style ammunition, which is so concentrated with lead that it has been known to reduce IQ by 100%.