If you’re president, the last thing you want to hear is yourself being compared to Jimmy Carter. Most of what we remember from the Carter years are bad: double-digit inflation and interest rates, an embassy held hostage, high energy prices and more. Bad news for President Barack Obama: He’s looking up at Carter in a USA Today/Gallup Poll that tracks approval ratings for the last 12 presidents. At this point in his presidency, Carter had a 60 percent favorability rating. Obama’s is 55 percent, down nine points since inauguration day. At the six-month point Obama ranks 10th among the 12 presidents who’ve served since World War II. The good news: a high rating after six months doesn’t necessarily predict a successful presidency — Carter and President George H.W. Bush both had high marks at this point but failed to win re-election.
Tributes to Walter Cronkite will pour in throughout the weekend. It’s doubtful there will ever be anyone like Cronkite again — especially considering that broadcast television news is unlikely to ever again command the kind of audiences Cronkite did at the apex of his career, when 20 million Americans watched the “CBS Evening News.” He anchored that broadcast from 1962-81 and became the most trusted man in America, according to a poll in the early 1970s. Cronkite was the consummate newsman, rising to the anchor’s chair after starting as a wire-service reporter. With his passing it’ll be interesting to see new analysis of his career, which included a number of seminal moments — like his 1968 commentary during one broadcast that basically declared the Vietnam War unwinnable and helped President Lyndon Johnson decide not to run for re-election. If Cronkite wasn’t the original synthesizer of fact and analysis on TV, he probably did more than anyone else to legitimize it.
President Barack Obama regularly tells Americans his health-care reforms will play a major role in reducing federal deficits and strengthening the U.S. economy. He may have to stop that — or get a new Congressional Budget Office director. CBO’s current head, Douglas Elmendorf, told the Senate Budget Committee this week reform measures being drafted by Democrats would worsen the federal budget outlook and increase deficits. Asked if current legislation would “bend the long-term cost curve,” which is Washington-speak for gradually erasing red ink, Elemendorf said, simply, “No.”
It’s a devastating assessment, given the CBO’s non-partisan status (although the party in control of Congress selects the director). The analysis likely will weaken support for the 1,018-page bill unveiled by House Democrat leaders last week while emboldening moderate Democrats and Republicans to demand new approaches to reform — or, at a minimum, a deceleration in the process. Obama wants Congress to finish up health care before the August recess in a few weeks. But Elmendorf’s negative assessment almost certainly helps those who want to slow the process down.
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn gave it a whirl: When his turn came to quiz Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor on Wednesday, the Muskogee Republican suggested they have a conversation most Americans could understand. An obstetrician, Coburn suggested the only thing as eye-glazing as a bunch of lawyers talking legalese would be a bunch of doctors immersed in medical lingo. The judge didn’t take the hint. Her responses to Coburn’s questions were dotted with lawyer talk — “precedents,” “reaffirming,” “core holding,” “claimant.” And when Sotomayor explained the word “fundamental” is defined differently in legal circles, eyeballs all over America frosted over. Nice try anyway, senator.
Newly minted U.S. Sen. Al Franken achieved lift-off at the opening day of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings. Though it was the Minnesota Democrat’s fifth day in office, it probably was the first time most Americans have seen and heard him as a full-fledged senator. With just four days of service under his belt, Franken is the most junior member of the Judiciary Committee’s majority and thus was the last person on the panel to give an opening statement.
The former television comedian was solemn and business-like. He said he had a lot to learn and takes his constitutional oath seriously. Obviously, he has Stuart Smalley bound and gagged somewhere. Only once did Franken tread into partisan territory, suggesting as had other Democrats before him, that the charge of judicial activism cuts both ways and has been seen in the current court led by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts. For his opening Senate act — uh, appearance — Franken can feel good about himself.
Probably no American is more identified with the Vietnam War and its failures than former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, who was 93 when he died this week in Washington, D.C. Though McNamara had significant achievements before and after his Pentagon tour (1961-68) — he was president of Ford Motor Co. at one point and of the World Bank at another — he’ll forever be remembered as the architect of war policy in Southeast Asia that ultimately cost 58,000 American lives, strained the country’s social fabric and caused the U.S. to doubt its abilities and motives in a foreign policy sense for the better part of a decade.
Finding positives in such a negative chapter of history is hard. But the errors of Vietnam, propounded by McNamara and his boss, President Lyndon Johnson, helped erect important tests for committing American troops to battle. That is, don’t do it without clear policy objectives and unless you plan to win. Unfortunately, and despite the many accomplishments of a fully engaged life, Robert McNamara’s page in history mostly will be spent discussing the miscalculations of the Vietnam War, about which McNamara later wrote he his aides were “wrong, terribly wrong.”
The early consensus on Sarah Palin’s resignation as Alaska governor is there’s no consensus. Palin announced Friday she’ll step down July 25, and Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell will take over. One view is that Palin is sick of politics, especially the personal attacks on herself and her family since she was picked as John McCain’s running mate last year. Another is that Palin, who would have been up for re-election next year, wants to be free of her official duties in Alaska so she can better establish herself on the national stage for a presidential run in 2012.
The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol is of the latter view, writing that Palin probably figures she’s done all she could do as Alaska’s governor and wants to be able to get around the lower 48, improve her depth on the issues and the like. If so, it’s a gamble, because Republican rivals and Democratic opponents both will call her a quitter for leaving before her term is up. Then again, that’s pretty mild compared to some of the stuff she’s faced from media pundits, late-night comics and others.
One other point. Palin is 45. She could “retire” from politics for a couple of presidential cycles and make a comeback and still be younger than Hillary Clinton was when she sought the presidency in 2008.
Want to know why Vice President Joe Biden made an unannounced visit to Iraq last week? Because administration officials figured he’d draw a bigger crowd that way. Rim shot, please. We jest because the Veep’s announced trip to Wattsburg, Pa., near Erie, also last week, attracted only about 100, according to local reports. Biden was there to talk about using federal stimulus money to expand Internet access to rural areas. Obviously, folks in Wattsburg didn’t find the topic all that stimulating. Certainly, Biden isn’t the first vice president to struggle for attention, and he won’t be the last.