Thursday, January 28, 2010

Obama and the State of One Year

A year and a week after Obama was inaugurated, he appeared before Congress to deliver his first State of the Union. Even though, Obama should be in good political shape(Democrats actually hold more seats today than they did a year ago and there are incremental but substantial successes to point to) recent events made it feel like the President was in political trouble. The recent Massachusetts special election, and ensuing Democratic freak out, made the situation look worse then it should.

Obama used his speech to give a reset to his administration. I liked that the President came out fighting and defending his record. I also enjoyed the air of silent tension in the House chamber. While the audience was outwardly more respectable, there appeared to be a constant undercurrent of reaction to Obama's speech(even from Associate Justice Samuel Alito). It felt like a Prime Minister addressing the House of Commons on a serious subject. I am also glad that the President affirmed his support for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, and Defense Secretary Gates endorsement.

I wanted to hear a firm commitment on Obama's plan for passing the healthcare bill. While he did not give the firm direction I was hoping for, Obama did appear to give a guiding hand to the direction he wanted to go. He said he would not "walk away" from healthcare, and then later said the Democrats still had large majorities and "should not run for the hills." My belief is that this is the boost needed to encourage the House to pass the Senate bill and for the Senate to promise to use reconciliation to address the needed fixes but granted I am reading between the lines.

Ultimately what will determine the success and effectiveness of Obama's 1st State of the Union is the passage of healthcare, and a change in the jobs and economic outlook.

Book Review

For a long time I have been interested in reading E.L. Doctorow, and this week I dived in by read City of God. It is clear why people consider Doctorow to be one of our greatest living novelists. Doctorow is able to take difficult and complicated ideas and through his use of language and narrative mastery make those ideas accessible. There is no bigger idea then the idea of God and that is the idea that Doctorow tackles in City of God.

Doctorow addresses the the issue of God by intertwining a series of narratives, reflections, and commentaries. The tie that holds all these narrative threads together is the story of the theft of a cross from an Episcopal church and its subsequent discovery on the roof of a synagogue. This theft and investigation bring together the iconoclastic priest of the episcopal church and the female rabbi at the synagogue.

Doctorow's theme is the necessity to strip away all the trappings and build a belief system based on the most primal yearning for God. For Doctorow that means religion and God are what brings us closer to each other in either love or a quest for justice.

City of God is thought provoking and so well written that it draws you in as you read it. However, Doctorow's method of jumping from thread to threat is distracting. For me, I was almost a third of the why through the book before I was able to untangle the threads to get a handle on what is going on. As a card carrying(and paycheck receiving) member of the professionally religious, I have my doubts about being able to strip away all the trappings to get to the essence of religion.

Doctorow focuses on Christianity and Judaism and the essence of those religions is that God communicates through the events of history. In effect the method and the message are indistinguishable from each other. To strip away the method is to strip away the message, and Doctorow seems to want to do both; even though his different narratives make underlie the idea of the method is the message.

Even though I had some quibbles with City of God, I am impressed enough by Doctorow that I want to read some more of his books.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Book Review

I took a trip to Savannah, GA and I was able to read two books on my vacation from winter. One disappointed me and the other provided me great joy as I read.

The first book I read was The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. A follow up(but not a sequel) to Zafon's masterly The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel's Game does not live up to its forebearer. Zafon creates a tale with a great number of plot twists and unexpected turns. However, the book reads like Zafon got so carried away with creating plot twists that he was unable to find a good way to end the story. Zafon also seemed to get wrapped up in the spiritual aspects of the story that it did not seem that he was able to weave this strain into the story in an effective way. In spite of these disappointments, Zafon is such a gifted user of language that the book was a pleasurable disappointment.

Due to an unusually long mechanical delay on my flight to Savannah, I ran out of reading material and needed to buy more books. The book I bought was Clyde Edgerton's The Bible Salesman and I am glad I did. The book focuses on a 20 year door to door Bible salesman in 1950's North Carolina. The salesman is a little on the naive side and ends up getting involved in a multi-state car theft ring because he believes he is actually helping undercover FBI agents. Along the way, our salesman begins to read the Bible and realizes what it says isn't what his fundamentalist upbringing led him to believe the Bible said. As someone who grew up in a religious culture that revered a certain view of the Bible, and tried to pretend it was still 1953, I greatly enjoyed the gentile satire that recognizes the good that people in that culture are capable of but also recognizes the mental childishness that thrives in fundamentalist religion. Oh, and the book will make you laugh out loud. It is that funny and that good.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Mass Reax.

Last night in Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley to win the special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat most recently held by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy(D-MA). I feel obligated to share some of my thoughts about this development.

1. Congratulations are in order to Senator-elect Brown. He ran the better campaign; he diagnosed the mood of the electorate better, he ran a more disciplined campaign, and he was quick to pounce on Coakley's many gaffes. Sometimes in politics the person who does a better job is rewarded.

2. This is a setback for President Obama and the Democrat's agenda but it is only any insurmountable obstacle if Obama and the Congressional leaders allow it it to be one. I have long thought that Obama spent most of his political capital cleaning up the mess the Bush administration left. However, I thought there was still enough capital to pass the healthcare bill. All the the other major agenda items are probably of the table; except for economic and job issues that can be addressed through the budget and reconciliation process. Still with helathcare added to the mix this would be a substantive first Congressional session for Obama.

3. There is a Senate helathcare bill that the House can pass tomorrow if it wants to and there is still an empty healthcare reconciliation bill that can also be used. The House needs to pass that bill and then come back and use the reconciliation bill to pass the compromises the White House and Congress are currently negotiating. Morally this has to happen because people need to have access to healthcare and they need to know they will always be able to have health insurance. Politically, this bill has to pass because Congressional Democrats and President Obama cannot afford to not have this bill pass. If this bill fails then it will be the end of Democratic power in Washington for a long time. Also Democrats need to change the narrative. Right now the narrative is that the Democrats are in disarray and their agenda is possible. If healthcare passes then the narrative changes to Democrats fight and overcome setback to pass healthcare bill.

I have been watching Democrats for too long to think they will choose the obvious path. However, I hope they soon see that this is only real path they have.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

No Time Like the Present

If Labour's 1983 general election manifesto is "The longest suicide note in history," then it appears that the ensuing 27 years Labour has become more concise and efficient in committing political hari-kari.

During yesterday's session of Prime Minister's Questions (a session that the press said Gordon Brown won), two former Labour ministers circulated a letter asking for a secret ballot vote of the Party's confidence in Gordon Brown's leadership as Prime Minister. Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon launched the coup believing that up to a half dozen Cabinet ministers would join in the coup. The coup fell apart as during the afternoon and evening Cabinet ministers announced their support.

With a General Election this year, and the campaigning informally begun, there could not have been a worse time for an attempted leadership coup. All the recent polling indicates that Labour had pulled close enough to the Conservatives that a hung parliament was a possibility. At the very least the Tories would have a small majority in the Commons, and small majorities make it harder to push an agenda through and can often lead to early elections.

It seems to me that this aborted coup is the type of event that can seal a party's fate. The end result will be, I think, a reasonably comfortable Tory majority and a bloody Labour leadership election.

UK Political Nerdiness

Since the temperature is hovering around zero, and the wind chill makes it feel like the temperature is well below zero, I am spending my day off inside watching my DVD collection of Yes Minister. I am also spending my time playing with the greatest online political toy on the internet.

Ukpollingreport is the must go to site for making sense of events in the run up to the UK general election. They have a swingometer map that allows you to enter the projected percentages for each party. On a map of Great Britain(the map does not appear to have the Northern Ireland constituencies) the constituencies change color based on the party expected win the particular seat. I have spent the better part of the new year entering different percentages to see what seats would change hands.

Anyway, the swingometer map is a great way to waste time on the internet and yes I realize that I expose myself as more of a nerd then previously acknowledged.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Mom's Chili

The Backbencher's mom makes the best chili; an impressive feat when you consider she lives in a climate that allows people to eat chili for about 3 weeks every year. She sent me the recipe this weekend and I made a pot. Liturgygeek said that it was teh awesome, and so I decided to share the recipe with you.

1 1/2 lb. of ground beef (or a combination of beef and sausage)
1 medium chopped onion
1 pkg. Chili-O seasoning
2 tsp. of cumin and paprika
1 tsp. of salt and pepper
1 can of stewed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste
1 cup of water
1 can of chili beans and kidney beans
1 beef bouillon cube
5 tbs. of chili powder

Brown ground beef in a large pot. While browning meat chop the onion. When the meat is browned add the onion and then season with the Chili-O, cumin, paprika, salt and pepper. Add the tomatoes, sauce, paste, and water. Add the beans and the chili powder. Cook for at least 20 minutes, stirring often and adding more chili powder to taste if you so desire. Serve with tortillas, crackers, chopped onion, or cheese.