Wednesday, January 30, 2013

O'Malley Delivers His Best State of the State Address... Ever

I like to think that I am mostly immune from hyperbole, so please forgive the title of this post, but I see no way around the conclusion that Martin O'Malley's 7th State of the State address was his best address ever - it was certainly one of his best speeches ever - and I fully expected that he would conclude the speech by saying "and that's why I am asking for your support to be the Democratic nominee for President in 2016."

Perhaps he should have ended with that request... though I suspect that everyone viewing or listening to the speech got a free preview of his nomination battle stump speech.

O'Malley is a policy wonk, he is strongest when discussing policy and this speech was full of policy and thankfully lacking in his tendency to engage in poetic flourish (life is an evolving story...).

Consider his opening salvo:
Remember seven years ago? Our State had veered off course. We started following the same, never-mind-the-math approach that created our federal deficits. Democrats and Republicans alike – in this very Chamber – had voted to cut taxes for millionaires, and to greatly increase state spending, without paying for either one.

The result: a $1.7 billion structural deficit. What’s less, we were paying taxes for a government that was not working; that was failing to deliver results. Underperforming schools. Tuition hikes approaching 40%. Rising crime outside of Baltimore.

But in 2007, together, we started making better choices. We cut spending growth. We added a penny to the sales tax to improve our children’s education. We restored revenues by making our tax code more progressive and fair. We took concrete action to close our structural deficit.

But beyond talking about what Maryland has done, O'Malley focused much of his speech on what Maryland must do moving forward.

O'Malley called for job creation through needed infrastructure investment - clearly reminding people that their is a clear role for government in the economy through the provision of desperately needed services. He tackled gun control and called for a ban on assault rifles and handgun licensing. And he made another push for green energy via offshore wind.

O'Malley spoke of an end to the death penalty and he did so passionately. It is no small thing that a sitting governor and aspirant for the White House made the following comparison  "across our ever-more-closely connected world, the majority of executions now take place in just seven countries: Iran. Iraq. The People’s Republic of China. North Korea. Saudi Arabia. Yemen. And the United States of America."  A nation should be judged by the company that it keeps and when it comes to executions we're in some very sorry company. 

O'Malley offered an unapologetically progressive vision, but he wisely wrapped it up in commonsense rhetoric and placed it atop a very moderate (politically) record of accomplishments.

Consider, he prefaced his speech by reminding voters that under his leadership:
We used the pressure of sinking revenues to make government more efficient. For the first time, we started setting public goals with more immediate deadlines. We started measuring weekly performance to make government more effective.

We constrained budget growth and made government smaller. We strengthened our rainy Day Fund and protected our Triple A Bond Rating.

We fixed our pension system. We reformed hundreds of pages of regulations, streamlined permitting, and fast tracked jobs projects. We eliminated paperwork, simplified applications for business licenses, and reduced waiting times from months to days.
O'Malley's record as governor is not one of left-wing ideological leadership. Two years ago, commenting on O'Malley's re-election, I wrote O'Malley had "made some very difficult choices as governor. And, despite his progressive leanings, has presided over an era of very conservative budgeting." I stand by that assessment and believe that O'Malley highlighted that record very well today.

I have been very critical of O'Malley at times (when deserved) and suspect that I will continue to be. I believe that O'Malley will have a very hard time rising above the crowd should he seek the Democratic nomination in 2016 - but this speech is a positive sign.

Make no mistake, O'Malley's 2013 Maryland State of the State address was very much a 2016 campaign launch speech - and it was a damn good one. Watch your back Andrew Cuomo.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Obama's Power Problem

In an op-ed in today's Baltimore Sun I make the case that Barack Obama faces a daunting challenge if he truly expects to see his second term agenda become a reality. I argue that all presidents since the 1960s have had a problem of eroding political capital - defined as a mix of public approval, Congressional support, and victory margin.

None of Barack Obama's recent predecessors solved the political capital problem or avoided the power trap. It is the central political challenge confronted by modern presidents...
Pressed by this governing reality, recent presidents have tried to defy the political capital deficit via ever more claims of executive power - signing statements, executive orders, and recess appointments have all increased in the post-1960s world. But these claims of power ten to further erode public support and antagonize Congress - so political capital falls more.

The president's recent issuance of multiple executive orders to deal with the issue of gun violence is further evidence of his power trap. Faced with the likelihood of legislative defeat in Congress, the president must rely on claims of unilateral power. But such claims are not without limit or cost and will likely further erode his political capital. Only by solving the problem of political capital is a president likely to avoid a power trap.
One element of my argument has annoyed a few people; namely my reference to Obama's narrow reelection. Many are suggesting that Obama's reelection was not so narrow. I stand by what I wrote. Consider these important facts - few dispute that George W. Bush was narrowly reelected in 2004 when he bested John Kerry 51%-48%. Obama's margin over Romney was little different at 51%-47%. Folks are quick to point to Obama's clear electoral college victory - but political capital is linked to public support and the electoral college is a poor proxy for public support.

Aside from the narrowness of Obama's victory margin, there is something far more substantial which points to seriously diminished political capital - Obama's lost voters. Barack Obama is the first president in at least 100 years to be elected to a second term and receive fewer total votes than in his first election. Obama received 65.9 million votes in 2012, roughly 3.6 million fewer votes than his  69.5 million haul in 2008. By comparison, every other president elected to a second term in the last 100 years added to their first election total. George W. Bush received a  whopping 12 million more votes in 2004 than in 2000. Bill Clinton added 2.5 million to his 1992 total, and Ronald Reagan added 11 million voters. Richard Nixon added over 15 million more voters.You must look to Franklin Roosevelt election to he fourth term to really see a fall of in support for a reelected incumbent. Typically, when an incumbent receives fewer total votes when seeking reelection they lose. Even Mitt Romney managed to best John McCain's vote total by about 1.5 million voters.

Unlike every other president to be elected to a second term in the last 100 years, Barack Obama's base of support shrank after 4 years in office. That is a very bad indication of the state of his political capital. Obama talked a good game in his inaugural address today, but with a bare majority approval rating, a bare majority reelection, a diminished base of mass support, and a Republican House of Representatives Obama is unlikely to see much of what he envisions ever come to pass. That's simply the reality of modern presidential politics.