John Anderson, R.I.P.

John Anderson died Sunday night at the ripe old age of 95.  A Republican Representative from Illinois, he pursued a quixotic quest for the presidency in 1980, losing in the Republican primaries and then running as an independent against incumbent President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.  Anderson did well in the polls for a while but ultimately lost, getting only a little over 6 percent of the popular vote while Ronald Reagan achieved an electoral college landslide.

04-john-anderson-w710-h473I was one of the 6 percent.  I voted for Anderson because I thought President Carter was totally in over his head and Ronald Reagan was potentially dangerous.  In contrast to those two, Anderson seemed like a sober, sensible alternative who would be fiscally prudent, careful yet firm in his foreign policy, and capable of dealing with the many challenges that the United States faced in the world, whether it was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the taking of hostages in Iran.  Even when it became clear that Anderson wouldn’t win, I still thought it was worth voting for somebody who I believed would actually be a good President, rather than settling for the lesser of two evils between the two major party candidates.

At the time, I thought that maybe the number of votes for Anderson might cause the major parties to change their ways and nominate better candidates in the future, or encourage others to run as third parties.  I’m sure the Ross Perot voters in 1992 felt the same way.  But of course, it didn’t happen.  Instead, the Jimmy Carter supporters blamed Anderson for Carter’s loss, reasoning that he was drawing votes away that would have gone to the incumbent President if Anderson hadn’t been in the race.  It’s a classic example of how politicians are wired to always blame somebody or something else for failure, rather than looking at their own deficiencies, shortcomings, and bad decisions.

Reading about Anderson’s death made me remember what it felt like in America in 1980, with an economy that seemed totally inert and helplessly in the grip of high inflation, high interest rates, and high unemployment, the continuing national humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis, with newscasters ticking off each day in which the hostages remained captive, an apparently rejuvenated Soviet Union ready to challenge a seemingly weak United States everywhere on the world stage . . . and a President who seemed fundamentally incapable of dealing with those problems.  As a graduating college student with a journalism degree, I wondered how I would find a job when newspapers were closing left and right and nobody seemed to be hiring.  It was a dismal, scary period — in its own way, every bit as scary as the 2009 recession.

In those grim times, voting for John Anderson made a lot of sense to me.  I still think he would have made a good President.

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The Guy In The Horse Head Mask

On a recent visit to Denver, President Obama shook hands with a guy wearing a horse head mask.  The photo of the incident is weird, and it will find its place in the ever-growing photo album of weird presidential events, like President Nixon’s meeting with Elvis and President Carter’s ill-fated encounter with the killer rabbit.

Apparently, wearing a horse head mask is some kind of bizarre internet meme that traces its roots to an inexplicable and disturbing Japanese anime character.  Who knew? 

Of course, it’s shocking that the Secret Service would allow any masked individual — much less a horse-masked individual — to get within handshake distance of the President, but let’s leave that aside and think about the guy wearing the mask instead.  Why wear a horse mask when you are shaking the hand of the President?  Even if you were just wearing it as a matter of course on your stroll around Denver when the President’s entourage happened by, wouldn’t you remove the mask before shaking the President’s hand?  If you specifically brought the horse mask because you knew where the President was going to be walking — which also would mean a security lapse, by the way — then you were obviously doing it as a disrespectful razz on the President.  But, why a horse mask rather than a sign?  What meaningful message is sent when you wear a horse mask when greeting a politician?  Are you just indicating that it’s all a joke?

As for the President . . . well, this incident didn’t turn out to do anything more than produce a weird and somewhat embarrassing photo.  In the future, though, I hope he would have the judgment and good sense to avoid physical contact with mask-wearing people or other oddball types.  A guy wearing a horse mask is probably capable of just about anything, and reaching out to shake his hand when there are plenty of other, normally attired individuals available seems like a bad decision.

“Selfie”-Absorbed

The latest thing to apparently go “viral” is a series of photos of President Obama, his wife Michelle, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Danish leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela yesterday.

The President, Cameron, and Thorning-Schmidt joked and took a picture of themselves with a cell phone — called a “selfie” — while Michelle Obama sat to the side.  Countless bits of space on the internet have now been filled with debate about whether taking a “selfie” and sharing a joke during a memorial service is appropriate behavior, interpreting Michelle Obama’s demeanor as depicted in the photos, and trying to read whether she is irked that her husband is chatting and chuckling with the Danish leader.

This incident, in a nutshell, is one of the things about the internet that I find maddening.  So many things go “viral” that viral status seems to be the norm these days, and people fixate on trivial things at the expense of understanding the significant matters.  It’s a shame that anyone running a Google search on the Mandela memorial service will have to wade through commentary about the silly “selfie” incident rather than stories emphasizing the extraordinary fact that leaders from across the world — including the current American president and three former Presidents — traveled to South Africa to pay tribute to a former prisoner who is now regarded as a great historical figure.

So I’m not going to criticize President Obama for posing for a “selfie” and I’m not going to speculate about whether and how his wife Michelle reacted to his behavior.  That’s their business, not mine.  The significant thing is that he and former Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Carter saw fit to attend and honor the memory and life of Nelson Mandela, and I’m glad they did.

The Latest (Sigh) Jobs Report

Yesterday the August jobs report came out.  It was another in a series of “disappointing” economic reports — to the point where journalists covering employment numbers must have had to hit their thesauruses to try to find new synonyms for “weak,” “soft,” and “discouraging.”

In August, the economy added 169,000 jobs.  It’s a mediocre number, following a series of mediocre jobs growth numbers.  The unemployment rate dropped, but only because we don’t take into account people who have just stopped looking for work.  As the New York Times story linked above reports, the number of people participating in the labor force — i.,e., either working or looking for work — fell to its lowest level since 1978, since the Jimmy Carter administration.  And, the job creation estimates for June and July were revised downward.

There are concerns about the quality of the jobs being created.  Many of the new jobs are part-time positions in the retail and food services where the pay per hour is lower than in salaried jobs.  More then 7.9 million Americans are looking for full-time jobs but are only able to find part-time work.

The analysts react to these reports by debating whether this latest glimpse at a lame economy will cause the Federal Reserve Board to modify its monetary policies, and how the stock market will be affected.  And who knows?  Perhaps President Obama will declare, for the umpteenth time in his presidency, that he is ready to focus with laser-like intensity on jobs, jobs, jobs — and hope that no one recalls that his previous pivots to the terrible employment situation did absolutely zilch to ease the angst of people who can’t find work.

As for me, I try to remember that behind each employment statistic there is a human story of suffering and embarrassment, of people who can’t provide for their families and have seen their dreams explode in a blizzard of unpaid bills and urgent notices from creditors.  Why isn’t their terrible predicament more of a priority for President Obama and Congress?  Isn’t it time that we tried a different approach that might actually help them to find a good-paying job?

Jimmy Carter Speaks

Kish and I are back in front of the TV, tuned in to C-SPAN — and this time, we’re watching the Democratic National Convention.

The first speaker we saw was former President Jimmy Carter, who gave some brief and heartfelt comments about President Obama, the challenges he has faced, and his accomplishments during his first term.  President Carter’s remarks ended with his endorsement of President Obama’s re-election and were warmly received by the convention delegates.

President Carter had not been closely embraced by some prior Democratic candidates, presumably because he was a one-termer and his presidency is largely considered to have been a failure.  Even now, more than 30 years after his presidency ended, President Carter still doesn’t get prime time exposure; his televised remarks to this convention were broadcast before the 8 o’clock hour.

I’m not sure how much weight President Carter’s endorsement carries, but I’m glad he had the chance to have his say.  It always seemed awkward for a former President to be kept in the background, even by the party that nominated him twice for President.

Are You Better Off Now Than You Were Four Years Ago?

Anyone who lived through the 1980 presidential election remembers the very basic question:  “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  Ronald Reagan used that question — and the anticipated answer of most Americans — to devastating effect against incumbent President Jimmy Carter.

President Obama had better hope voters don’t ask themselves that question this year, because new economic data analyzed by former Census Department statisticians at the Sentier Research firm reveals that the answers of most Americans are not going to be favorable.  The data shows that, amazingly, median household income fell more during the “recovery” from June 2009 to June 2012 than it did during the preceding recession.  What’s more, the drop in median household income happened across the board, in virtually every demographic group.

For example, family households lost 4.7 percent; people who live alone lost 7.5 percent. Households headed by African-Americans lost 11.1 percent. The income in married-couple households dropped 3.6 percent. Households headed by full-time workers lost 5.1 percent. People with “some college, no degree” lost 9.3 percent, people with associate’s degrees lost 8.6 percent, high school grads lost 6.9 percent, and people with bachelor’s degrees or more lost 5.9 percent.

The only group that came our ahead during the period from June 2009 to June 2012 was senior citizens.   The incomes of those between the ages of 65 to 74 grew by 6.5 percent, and the incomes of those over 75 increased by 2.8 percent.

The Sentier Research findings help to illustrate just how bad the performance of our economy has been during recent years.  There have been lots of losers and few winners — not exactly the record that an incumbent President would want to run on.  When almost everyone has taken a big hit to the pocketbook, it’s not easy to convince them that, bad as things are, they would be even worse if you hadn’t been in charge.

The President’s Ego

Republicans are making sport of a comment made by President Obama at a recent fundraiser featuring NBA athletes.  “It is very rare that I come to an event where I’m like the fifth or sixth most interesting person,” the President reportedly joked.  Republicans and conservatives are citing the comment to lampoon the President’s ego — which they want to depict as enormous.

Obviously, Presidents must be self-confident to be successful.  It’s a demanding job; the individual who fills it has to be decisive, and a big part of being decisive is having confidence in your judgment.   You don’t want someone who is wringing their hands about every decision.  That’s one reason why people were so concerned about President Carter’s famous retreat to Camp David, where he seemed to be inviting advice from every Tom, Dick and Harry about how to get the country headed in the right direction.  Americans wondered whether the President had lost his nerve — and that possibility made people very uneasy.

Of course, you’d like to think that the President isn’t an arrogant SOB, either.  We want Presidents who are humble about being chosen to lead us and modest about their ability to perform the various tasks required of The Most Powerful Man in the World.  Presidents shouldn’t be know-it-alls; they clearly need to be willing to listen and learn about a broad range of topics from subject matter experts.  And conceit and narcissism aren’t very attractive qualities, in a President or anyone else. There’s a reason why pride is the first of the seven deadly sins.

I think there’s a fine line here, and President Obama should be paying careful attention to it.  Polling data shows that even people who don’t agree with his positions on the issues often still say they like him, personally.  That’s an important attribute going into what looks like it will be a close election.  If I were the President, I’d leave the jokes about how fascinating and interesting he is on the cutting room floor — at least until after Election Day.