a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

Today’s opinion pick: “Barack Obama’s Prose Style”

Posted on the January 23rd, 2009

When President Obama stepped to the podium at his inauguration on Tuesday and began to speak, I felt the same curiosity (and slight apprehension) that many, I think, have come to feel every time he makes a major speech. My nervous jitters worried the question – can he rise once again to the occasion? The curiosity encircled my question – how will he rise to the occasion?

For me, our shiny new President didn’t disappoint, but some disagree (or think they do).  New York Time‘s columnist Stanley Fish discusses an intriguing type of reaction to the speech in his “Think Again” column today.

An excerpt:

Commentators on radio and television have been doing a two-step. First they say that the speech lacked the eloquence of his speech on race or of his remarks on the night he won the presidency; and then they spend lots of time talking about the implications of a sentence (“We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals”), a clause (“programs will end”), a phrase (“dust ourselves off”) or even a single word (“Muslim,” “non-believers.”)

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A glance at online news of politics USA

Posted on the December 2nd, 2008

Some items of interest this week:

I. Are Wall Street bankers losing their influence over the White House?

In appointing Timothy Geithner to the cabinet post of Treasury Secretary, President-elect Obama is breaking a long chain of Wall Street bankers running U.S. government, according to William D. Cohan at The Daily Beast (“Obama Gives Wall Street the Cold Shoulder” Nov 24, 2008).

Analyzing Obama’s choice of Geithner, Cohan writes:

But this surely drives home the point that one of Obama’s definitions of change is to not allow Wall Street its traditional role in running things. Tim Geithner, the presumptive Secretary of the Treasury, is all of a regulator, an academic and a civil servant. One thing he is not is a Wall Street banker (although he would have been an effective one.) Larry Summers, soon-to-be Obama’s director of the National Economic Council, is the son of economists, an economist himself, a former president of Harvard University and a former Secretary of the Treasury. He was never a banker and never worked on Wall Street. Indeed none of Obama’s cabinet picks, or rumored cabinet picks to date have worked in any substantive way on Wall Street.

The current U.S. Treasury Secretary is Henry Paulson — previously the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the investment bank Goldman Sachs.

To see short biographies of Obama’s new economic team, go here (“President-Elect Barack Obama and Vice President-Elect Joe Biden Announce Key Members of Economic Team” TPM, Nov 2008).

II. Obama’s not happy with Wall Street’s legendary greed is good credo

Obama offered a reprimand to the country’s top businesspeople last week in an interview with Barbara Walters on ABC network (Nov 26, 2008).


BARBARA WALTERS: How did you feel when you read about the three heads of the auto companies taking private planes to Washington?

BARACK OBAMA: Well, I thought maybe they’re a little tone deaf to what’s happening in America right now. And this has been a chronic problem, not just for the auto industry, I mean, we’re sort of focused on them. But I think it’s been a problem for the captains of industry generally. When people are pulling down hundred million dollar bonuses on Wall Street, and taking enormous risks with other people’s money, that indicates a sense that you don’t have any perspective on what’s happening to ordinary Americans. When the auto makers are getting paid far more than their counterparts at Toyota, or at Honda, and yet they’re losing money a lot faster than Japanese auto makers are, that tell me that they’re not seeing what’s going on out there, and one of the things I hope my presidency helps to usher in is a, a return to an ethic of responsibility. That if you’re placed in a position of power, then you’ve got responsibilities to your workers. You’ve got a responsibility to your community. Your share holders. That if — there’s got to be a point where you say, ‘You know what, I have enough, and now I’m in this position of responsibility, let me make sure that I’m doing right by people, and, and acting in a way that is responsible.’ And that’s true, by the way, for members of congress, that’s true for the president, that’s true for cabinet members, that’s true for parents. I want all of us to start thinking a little bit more, not just about what’s good for me, but let’s start thinking about what’s good for our children, what’s good for our country. The more we do that, the better off we’re going to be.

III. Obama names his National Security team

Yesterday, Obama held a press conference to introduce his choices for his National Security team. From the Obama website change.gov:

Nominees announced today include Senator Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, Eric Holder as Attorney General, Governor Janet Napolitano as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Susan Rice as Ambassador to the United Nations, and General Jim Jones, USMC (Ret) as National Security Adviser. President-elect Obama also announced that he has asked Robert Gates to stay on as Secretary of Defense.

Video of the press conference here (27:01)

IV. The everlasting Clinton(s) factor

As noted above, Obama has picked Hillary Clinton to be his new Secretary of State. And as Newsweek‘s Senior White House correspondent Richard Wolffe said in an interview yesterday (Countdown with Keith Olbermann, MSNBC, Dec 1, 2008):

“…for the media, Hillary Clinton has overshadowed every other pick coming out of this transition…”

My impression while clicking around online is that this Hillary media storm occurred with news outlets worldwide, given the high international profile of the former First Lady. Visiting various USA newsites and blogs, the two questions I saw posed most often were: one, why did Obama really choose his former arch-rival Hillary; and two, what does this choice tell us about what kind of president Obama will be?

The answers, of course, can largely only be speculation. But in a column yesterday, Matthew Yglesias captured the central focus of the discussion well, I think. Recalling some of the major differences on foreign policy between Obama and Hillary Clinton during the campaign, Yglesias writes (“A hawk in the roost?” The National, Nov 27, 2008):

For all the speculation about Obama’s offer to Clinton, there has been no real account of the rationale or motivations for his decision – at least not beyond vague, and endlessly repeated, references to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, a profile of the cabinet Abraham Lincoln assembled under wildly different circumstances. The transition team has done very little to outline the substantive agenda it expects a Clinton-led State Department to tackle, and indeed, perhaps the ongoing financial crisis will mean any bold new foreign initiatives will be put on the back-burner.

What is unclear at this point is whether Clinton joining the Obama team means that Clinton has gained faith in Obama’s approach, or that Obama has lost faith in his own. The very fact of Obama’s election would seem to tilt things in his direction: there was a consistent trajectory to their disagreements, and Obama was on the right side – a judgment vindicated by his victories over both Clinton and McCain. It’s not merely that he won, but that winning demonstrates his supposedly “risky” positions were not so risky after all.

V. Do you wanna speak English, Uncle Sam asks

The U.S. Department of Education is sponsoring a new online program offering free English language instruction. Titled U.S.A. Learns, the website…

…promotes programs that help American adults get the basic skills they need to be productive workers, family members, and citizens.  The major areas of support are Adult Basic Education, Adult Secondary Education, and English Language Acquisition.  These programs emphasize basic skills such as reading, writing, math, English language competency and problem-solving.

Read more background about the program here (“Learning English the Web Way” The New York Times, Nov 24, 2008).

See previous A glance at online news of politics USA

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A glance at online news of politics USA

Posted on the November 23rd, 2008

I may be right, I may be wrong, but my impression is…

If it’s true, as widely reported, that President-elect Obama has chosen Hillary Clinton (in effect, the Clintons) to be his new Secretary of State, it seems to me he may be doing something analogous to pushing the reset button on a malfunctioning computer.

Could it be that by choosing Senator Clinton, Obama is re-setting USA foreign policy? Could he be (figuratively speaking) returning to the pre-Bush era of eight years ago — returning to the President Clinton era that is familiar and, more or less, reassuring to world leaders? Could it be that Obama (who reportedly is a pragmatist) sees this reset as the best possible starting point to begin building his own, distinctive foreign policy?

Some items of interest this week

I. As mentioned above, rumor has it that President-elect Barack Obama wants Senator Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State. But will former President Bill Clinton’s recent, highly lucrative, worldwide business activities pose an obstacle for her? Do some of the former president’s activities — paid speaking engagements, donations to his official library — create conflicts of interest for his wife who would be one of the highest officials in American government?  (“Bill goes to the vet” Politico.com, Nov 19, 2008).

On the other hand, some say Hillary might simply tell Obama “No thanks! (“Clinton Said to Be Unsure About Cabinet Job” The New York Times, Nov. 18, 2008).

II. Another cabinet appointment of great importance to people outside the U.S. (in light of the ongoing worldwide economic crisis) is Obama’s new Secretary of the Treasury. On Friday it was widely reported that Obama has chosen Timothy Geithner as his new Treasury Secretary — a formal announcement reportedly is expected tomorrow.

The news of this choice reportedly caused an immediate surge of optimism on Wall Street, sending markets up a soaring 500 points (“Tim Geithner, Treasury Secretary” The Huffington Post).

III. President-elect Barack Obama is already doing something innovative — he’s posting his weekly, three-to-four minute radio broadcasts to the public on his newly created YouTube channel change.gov. As a helpful aid to those who need it, the video has subtitles in English.

In this week’s talk, Obama announces he has directed his economic team to assemble an Economic Recovery Plan that will save or create 2.5 million more jobs by January of 2011.

IV. When she becomes First Lady, Michelle Obama says she wants to be Mom-in-Chief. What does she mean by this (“Michelle’s Closet Agenda” The Daily Beast, Nov 18, 2008)?

Hint from the article:

Don’t be fooled by her Brady Bunch moments. The Mom-in-Chief will promote feminism, speak out on Iraq, and tackle America’s public health crisis.

And one group that seems to be particularly happy with Michelle Obama becoming First Lady is the world of high fashion (“Michelle Obama’s White House Style” WWD, Nov 11, 2008). Now there’s a new website, Mrs. O, solely dedicated to daily chronicling and photos of what that style is.

It was first inspired by Mrs. Obama’s wardrobe at the Democratic National Convention in August 2008. The site hopes to be a central, ever evolving resource to chronicle Mrs. O’s look, while providing fashion commentary and information. The site will encourage visitors to contribute tips, photos and commentary, and share enthusiasm for the budding style icon, Mrs. O.

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The audacious optimism of Barack Obama

Posted on the October 31st, 2008

There’s a telling anecdote early in “The Audacity of Hope” by Barack Obama. Obama has just described what he calls the drubbing he took when he lost badly in the 2000 election after challenging the Democratic incumbent for his congressional seat:

A year and a half later, the scars of that loss sufficiently healed, I had lunch with a media consultant who had been encouraging me for some time to run for statewide office. As it happened, the lunch was scheduled for late September 2001.

“You realize, don’t you, that the political dynamics have changed,” he said as he picked at his salad.

“What do you mean?” I asked, knowing full well what he meant. We both looked at the newspaper beside him. There on the front page, was Osama bin Laden.

“Hell of a thing, isn’t it?” he said, shaking his head. “Really bad luck. You can’t change your name, of course. Voters are suspicious of that kind of thing. Maybe if you were at the start of your career, you know, you could use a nickname or something. But now…” His voice trailed off and he shrugged apologetically before signalling the waiter to bring us the check.

I’m about two-thirds of the way through reading Obama’s 2006 book. Essentially a political document, as a New York Times review describes it, the book primarily lays out Obama’s political ideas. He recounts some of his experiences in elective political office, and reflects on what he has learned from them. Whether you are a supporter of Obama or not, the book is helpful as a compact refresher course in some basic history about American government and how it came to be.

The book is also a primer on the realities of how the political system functions today. As most of the world now knows, Obama subscribes more to the glass half-full philosophy than the glass half-empty. I find it one of the most admirable things about him. I admit, though, that while reading his detailing at times of the hard, complex dynamics of how the government actually functions, I myself have to resist mightily seeing the glass as dry as a bone.

It may be for this reason that the anecdote above that he related is staying in the forefront of my mind as I continue my reading of his book. I ask myself what I or someone else might have done if, in similar circumstances, life had dished up the same ridiculous name blame game. Talk about a clear cut challenge of how to view that proverbial glass!

You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out how Obama confronted the situation. On the other hand, it’s now kind of obvious, isn’t it.

You can read an excerpt of the book here.

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Obama’s democratic version of the Midas touch

Posted on the July 2nd, 2008

Barack Obama continues to raise money for his U.S. Presidential campaign in ever-astounding, record-busting, supersized numbers. How exactly he does this and, just as important, how the techies and entrepreneurs of the Silicon Valley are playing the key role in helping him are topics explored in an article last month in The Atlantic magazine (“The Amazing Money Machine” by Joshua Green, June, 2008).

What is the exact amount of the money that Obama and his team of supporters are bringing in from donors? For the month of last February alone, the figure reached was “the staggering $55 million—nearly $2 million a day,” according to the article.

As is pointed out, however, in the last sentence of this paragraph from the report, another theme of Obama’s campaign is equally revolutionary:

In a sense, Obama represents a triumph of campaign-finance reform. He has not, of course, gotten the money out of politics, as many proponents of reform may have wished, and he will likely forgo public financing if he becomes the nominee. But he has realized the reformers’ other big goal of ending the system whereby a handful of rich donors control the political process. He has done this not by limiting money but by adding much, much more of it—democratizing the system by flooding it with so many new contributors that their combined effect dilutes the old guard to the point that it scarcely poses any threat. Goren­berg says he’s still often asked who the biggest fund-raisers are. He replies that it is no longer possible to tell. “Any one of them could wind up being huge,” he says, “because it no longer matters how big a check you can write; it matters how motivated you are to reach out to others.”

UPDATE: Questo post in italiano

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Democratic Party Debate in Ohio: my pick for best news summary

Posted on the February 27th, 2008

Umpteen million stories on news sites online today about the, possibly, make-or-break debate last night in Ohio between Hillary and Obama. My favorite for concise but comprehensive summary of what happened, and what it means is online at The Guardian (“Clinton lays into Obama during TV debate” by Suzanne Goldenberg, Feb 27, 2008).

The article’s sub-head and teaser:

Clinton goes on the debate offensive

In an Ohio debate considered crucial to her chances of staying in the race for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton attacked Barack Obama’s healthcare policy and campaign tactics

Posted with the story is a 3 1/2 minute video of some of the tense action of the debate.

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Lawrence Lessig: arguing for Obama

Posted on the February 17th, 2008

Lawrence Lessig is, without a shadow of doubt, one of the good guys when it comes to fighting to preserve the democratic process in the U.S.

As to bio, currently he is a professor at Stanford Law School. Previously he was a professor at Harvard Law School. He is the creator of Creative Commons. Scientific American named him as one of America’s top 50 visionaries. He also has written four books, and he is a columnist for Wired magazine. So when he speaks, a lot of people listen.

Recently, he spoke via a video on Youtube (below) on why he is supporting the Democratic Party Presidential candidate Barack Obama. The talk is titled “20 minutes or so about why I am 4Barack.

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Obama’s Great Speech in South Carolina

Posted on the January 27th, 2008

That it may be one of his best yet is an opinion shared by a lot of people, from what I’m reading. The video isn’t hard to find online. Just in case, here’s the whole thing, by way of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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