Barack Obama

HEALTH REFORM: We've Come a Long Way, Baby

President Obama’s Health Care Summit last week was seen as the opening salvo in the coming battle for health care reform in the United States. But before we gear ourselves up for that conflict, it’s worth pausing for a moment to note that the president - in less than two months in office - already has a substantial legacy of major health reform to his credit. 

Take for example efforts to get doctors and hospitals to use the latest information technology. The “HITECH” bill is one relatively minor component of the mind-bendingly massive $787 billion stimulus package passed last month. This single piece of legislation, though, increases federal investment in health information technology by 12,000 percent, according to the California HealthCare Foundation. This is no mean feat and it comes not a moment too soon.

A Shout-out for Savings in a Primetime Press Conference

In a primetime news conference designed mainly to promote and defend the pending economic recovery bill, I expected to hear a few curveballs from the media. What was fairly unexpected, however, was a chunk of time devoted to the delicate balance between consumer spending and savings in the context of economic recovery. But sure enough, near the halfway point of the broadcast, there was Chuck Todd of NBC News playing the role of inquisitive asset-builder. Here's the exchange (my emphasis added):

Chuck Todd, NBC News: Thank you, Mr. President. In your opening remarks, you talked about that, if your plan works the way you want it to work, it's going to increase consumer spending. But isn't consumer spending, or overspending, how we got into this mess? And if people get money back into their pockets, do you not want them saving it or paying down debt first before they start spending money into the economy?

President Obama: Well, first of all, I don't think it's accurate to say that consumer spending got us into this mess. What got us into this mess initially were banks taking exorbitant, wild risks with other people's monies based on shaky assets and because of the enormous leverage, where they had $1 worth of assets and they were betting $30 on that $1, what we had was a crisis in the financial system.

That led to a contraction of credit, which, in turn, meant businesses couldn't make payroll or make inventories, which meant that everybody became uncertain about the future of the economy, so people started making decisions accordingly, reducing investment, initiating layoffs, which, in turn, made things worse.

Now, you are making a legitimate point, Chuck, about the fact that our savings rate has declined and this economy has been driven by consumer spending for a very long time. And that's not going to be sustainable.

You know, if -- if all we're doing is spending and we're not making things, then over time other countries are going to get tired of lending us money and eventually the party's going to be over. Well, in fact, the party now is over.

And so the -- the sequence of how we're approaching this is as follows. Our immediate job is to stop the downward spiral, and that means putting money into consumers' pockets. It means loosening up credit.

It means putting forward investments that not only employ people immediately, but also lay the groundwork for long-term economic growth.


Now, what we are going to also have to do is to make sure that, as soon as the economy stabilizes, investment begins again, we're no longer contracting but we're growing, that our mid-term and long-term budget is dealt with, and I think the same is true for individual consumers.

Right now, they're -- they're just trying to figure out, how do I make sure that, if I lose my job, you know, I'm still going to be able to make my mortgage payments? Or they're worried about, how am I going to pay next month's bills? So they're not engaging in a lot of long-term financial planning.

Once the economy stabilizes and people are less fearful, then I do think that we're going to have to start thinking about, how do we operate more prudently? Because there's no such thing as a free lunch.

So if -- if you want to get -- if you want to buy a house, then putting zero down and buying a house that is probably not affordable for you in case something goes wrong, that's something that has to be reconsidered. So we're going to have to change our -- our bad habits.

But right now, the key is making sure that we pull ourselves out of the economic slump that we're in.

A California Inaugural

I had planned to spend today making phone calls on various stories. Bad idea.

No one's here. The governor, the lieutenant governor, the leaders of the state assembly and the state senate, the attorney general, the secretary of state, the mayors of San Francisco and Los Angeles -- they're all in Washington for the inaugural. In fact, the ceremony was dominated by Californians. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein presided. Feinstein and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi escorted Obama in. Orange County's Rev. Rick Warren said the opening prayer.

With everyone out of town, one wonders who is in charge. Fortunately, it's not a bad time for our leaders to be gone, since the state is in such great shape, big budget surplus, no calamity staring us in the face... Oh, yes?... Never mind.

At Clinton Confirmation Hearing, a Glimmering of Possibility for Asset Building in Foreign Assistance

As all of Washington-- and indeed, the United States, if not the world-- awaits with anticipation President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration next week, a glimmering of possibility regarding a more prominent role for asset-building strategies was evident in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearing yesterday.  Giving a nod to toward social development, microfinance, and bottom-up empowerment as key elements of a foreign policy strategy, we can't help but suggest how an asset-building framework would enhance the impact of such strategies.

Camp 'No on 8'

The Courage Campaign, a progressive web site and organization in California, is inviting supporters of same-sex marriage to attend the first "Camp Courage" in Los Angeles later this month. What kind of camp is this? It's a camp for training people to organize to repeal Prop 8 and secure marriage equality for gay couples. It may sound a bit strange, but it's exactly the sort of planning and organizing that same-sex marriage supporters need to be doing. The camp concept appears to be modeled on the so-called "Camp Obamas," the weekend training sessions that the Obama conducted to turn volunteers into organizers.

Panetta's Departure Could Be Blow to California Reform

Unintentionally, Barack Obama may have delivered a blow to political reform in California. Various news reports say former Congressman and Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta is Obama's pick for CIA director. In California, Panetta has been a leading voice for budget and political reform, most recently as the leader of the reform coalition California Forward. 2009 has been shaping up as a year for reform, as various groups try to capitalize on the state's budget crisis and political stalemates to push big ideas (including the possibility of a constitutional convention). For those folks, losing Panetta is not good news. He can't be easily replaced. 

How Should Obama Invest $10 Billion in Early Education?

I tackle the question in today's Washington Times:

Advocates for early childhood education are understandably excited about their prospects under President-elect Barack Obama's administration. During the campaign, Mr. Obama pledged to increase federal early education spending by $10 billion annually.

Currently, the two largest federal early childhood programs, Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant, spend about $12 billion annually combined. A $10 billion increase would almost double that investment.

Just as remarkably, Mr. Obama deliberately singled out early education as an important investment he would prioritize even in tight economic times. Add in a potentially $1 trillion economic stimulus package that's raising the prospects for even previously inconceivable public investments, and advocates are downright giddy.

It seems terribly Grinch-like to throw cold water on these hopes. But in fact this is a dangerous moment for both Mr. Obama and the early education movement.

Obama's Early Education Opportunity

Big front pages NYT article today looks at the palpable excitement within the early education community about President-elect Barack Obama's support for early education, and the ambitious agenda he put forward for early childhood investments during the campaign. The article's a big win for early childhood advocates, but it's also a bit diappointing from an analytical perspective. Although the NYT's Sam Dillon offers some interesting glimpses into the forces that influenced Mr. Obama's support for early education, there's nothing here that will be news to EarlyEdWatch readers, and the article touches only tangentially on some of the tougher policy questions that any effort to enact or implement these proposals will have to deal with: How will new investments interact with existing early childhood programs and funding streams, such as Head Start? What kinds of quality controls and state-level accountability can be incorporated into new federal investments to ensure that states are using them in ways that actually improve outcomes for kids? How can states ensure quality in early education services across a network of diverse providers? If we're talking about a federal role in fostering the development of systems of early care and education at the state and local level, what should those systems look like?

Obama Used To Make Case for Tax Hikes In California

In this new ad, from the California state council of SEIU, the country's largest union, clips from President-elect Obama's speeches are juxtaposed with arguments that Sacramento must change and provide revenues to support state spending on education and health. It's an indirect way of using Obama to argue for state tax hikes. One wonders if the president elect, who ran on a pledge to cut taxes for most Americans, appreciates being used to make the case for tax increases here.

Call It America


The day after Barack Obama was elected as our next President, Ethan Bronner wrote in the New York Times...

"There is a country out there where tens of millions of white Christians, voting freely, select as their leader a black man of modest origin, the son of a Muslim. There is a place on Earth - - call it America - -  where such a thing happens."

No matter who we supported in the election, I suspect that now each of us feels pride that our nation overcame its past and dared to reinvent its future. But in sending Mr. Obama to the White House, we did more than send "a black man of modest origin" - - we sent ourselves. Like Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" we sent a man that has some part in him that resembles something good and constructive in each one of us.

So why not go beyond metaphor and actually send ourselves to Washington? Given the economic crisis and the imposing challenges ahead - - from climate change to a widening gulf between haves and have-nots - - now is the time to answer the question posed to a nation more than four decades ago. Knowing that he will find his own soaring and inspirational rhetoric, I doubt Mr. Obama will repeat John Kennedy's challenge, but it's hard not to hear those words like a song we can't get out of our heads - - "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."