Monday, April 28, 2008

The Gas Holiday? Another silly idea!

It sounds like a great plan. With the high cost of gas, let's roll back the federal gas tax for everyone over the summer to give drivers a break during the busiest travel season. McCain first proposed this plan and suggests that "Hard-working American families are suffering from higher gasoline prices. John McCain calls on Congress to suspend the 18.4 cent federal gas tax and 24.4 cent diesel tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day." After Obama came out against the plan, Hillary Clinton NOW supports it.

This is another example of silly election year politics. On the surface, it (maybe) seems like a reasonable way to give Americans a break. But, with some scrutiny, I believe it is a failed plan.


First, lets look at the math. The rollback in the tax will last about 14 weeks. In 2001 the average American traveled about 14,500 miles a year in a vehicle. Lets bump that to 20,000 for increases since then and to make the math easier. The average new car in the US gets about 25 miles to the gallon. I think we can all agree that the folks most likely to benefit from a reduction in the gas tax may drive older cars that get less mileage. Then again, those driving Hummer's help drag down the overall average. But, just to be conservative and to again used round numbers, let's assume the average car gets 20 miles per gallon.

If we work out the numbers this amounts to about 1000 gallons of gas per year. Now, if we multiply that by the federal tax, the average American would save $184. Ah, but wait. This program would only run for 14 weeks, not an entire year. That means the average savings to the typical American would be just about $50 over the summer.

All of this, of course, is based on same pretty conservative assumptions. I would argue that those needing help the most because of increased costs (food is up as well you know) are really feeling it in the supermarket. On top of that, many of the most needy don't have cars (thus get no help with this plan), only drive for work (thus far under the typical average miles driven), may rely mostly on public transportation (again, get no help), or can find other ways to reduce fuel related costs (like car pooling).

But there's an even bigger problem with this tax rollback. It is a tax holiday for ALL Americans regardless of income, regardless of the purpose of a trip, and regardless if you are driving a Hummer H2 when you could probably get by with something more efficient. Why should someone who drives and can afford a Hummer get the same break as the average Joe who is just trying to get by?

On top of that, reducing the cost of gas will likely increase demand. Increasing demand will likely tighten supply. Tightening the supply will cause the price to increase somewhat thus taking back some of the $50 in tax benefits and giving them to big oil.

Finally, doing this also will cost the US treasury about $10billion dollars in money that is badly needed to maintain our highway system (remember that bridge that collapsed?).

Americans are suffering due to high costs. But, a 14-week band-aid that will save, at best, a typical American about $50 is not the way to fix this problem. The way to fix this problem is to address the root cause: we have to increase minimum efficiency for automobiles, we have to find alternative sources, we have to find ways to stabilize the regions where oil comes from, and we have to find ways to strengthen the dollar (because oil is priced world wide in dollars and the dollar has lost a great deal of value in recent months).

Now, if we want to help out Americans that are hurting, let's focus a plan on them. How about a tax credit for the those with the lowest incomes? Obama has proposed such a plan. How about a rebate on the gas tax for the first 500 gallons you buy each year rather than every single gallon? Or maybe a tax credit for gas for those under a certain income level?

There's hundreds of ways to address this issue, but a blanket rebate for every gallon of gas sold is the wrong way to go. It is nothing more than pandering for votes while ignoring the real issues. Once again Obama shows that he is the only candidate willing to speak the truth to voters rather than pander for votes!
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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Obama the most liberal senator? Not so fast!

It seems the latest talking point is that "Obama is the most liberal member of the US Senate." But, what do the facts say? Well, one place to look is in a compilation of data from the good folks over at Electoral-Vote.com. I like this site because it is a 100% data driven and non-spin site.

They did two sets of analysis. In the first one, they compiled rankings on each senator by liberal interest groups (e.g. ACLU ADA, NARAL, etc). They then took the average rating for each senator and compiled an overall ranking list. Where does Obama rank? Right smack in the middle just two spots away from a centrist like as Joe Lieberman. And where is John McCain? He's fifth from the bottom and about as far from the center as you can get! See for yourself.



Ah, but you suggest this is just some manufactured list made up by a bunch of liberals? OK, well then look at the second list compiled by Electoral-Vote.com. This one is a compilation of rankings by conservative interest groups (like Traditional Value Coalition and Family Research Council). In this list, McCain is in the lower third of the republicans while Obama in in the top third or so of Democrats again just two spots from Lieberman.

So, Obama is the most liberal senator? I don't think so.

This is the silliness that has to stop in US politics. When a campaign rep does an interview and lies, the reporter has an obligation to his or her profession to call the lie into question. But, that rarely happens. The lesson? Don't take these claims at face value. Do your research and make your own decision.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Experience

I was listening to the news earlier and heard a lot of talk about Hillary Clinton's experience. I began to wonder, what experience, exactly, does she have? Two-and-a-half terms as a senator. The rest of her experience comes as the spouse of the former president and a former governor.

What about Obama? He served in the state house of Illinois for 8-years and has spent two in the US Senate. I don't see much of a difference here. If anything, at least Obama was the person elected in the cases of his "experience". But lets look beyond that.

Obama comes from a tough upbringing, having been raised by a single mom. He knows what it is like to be raised in an environment were money was scarce, health care was an issue, and advantages few. Despite this difficult upbringing, he worked his way to Columbia and then Harvard Law School. He has worked with the poor in Chicago and served on the boards of non-profits. He has lived internationally thus bringing a unique perspective to our international relations, something we sorely need today and, most important, he brings an optimism that things can change in Washington.

If you think Barack Obama lacks experience, I urge you to reconsider what you define as experience.
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Sunday, April 20, 2008

35,000 in Philly and Why Change Can Happen

For those who think we need the more political savvy candidate in Washington, or those who think the one with more Washington experience is the better candidate, have a look at these videos.

First, Barack spoke in Philadelphia, at the location of our nations founding and talked about how those patriots, against the longest odds, forced change by taking on the mighty British empire. Think about it...if there were political pundits around at the time, what would they have said? They would have said "they will never succeed" or "you can't change England" while today people say "Washington won't change" and "you've got to know how to play the game." Well, I don't think so and that crows of 35,0000+ in Philly seems to agree! Obama's basic argument is that the poeple must stand up and demand that their government take notice of the people. This is what this election as all about. Have a look at the videos below, keep an open mind, and decide for yourself.



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For a shorter version, have a look at Obama's speech the next day:



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Friday, April 18, 2008

Endorsement from Robert Reich

Here in Pennsylvania we are gearing up for the primary on Tuesday. With Democrats still debating who should be the candidate, you have to take notice when a former Clinton administration official comes out in support of Barack Obama. However, I believe the words he used to explain his choice really underscore why Barack Obama is the best candidate. Below are some excerpts along with the link to the full posting.

The formal act of endorsing a candidate is generally (and properly)limited to editorial pages and elected officials whose constituents might be influenced by their choice. The rest of us shouldn't assume anyone cares. My avoidance of offering a formal endorsement until now has also been affected by the pull of old friendships and my reluctance as a teacher and commentator to be openly partisan. But my conscience won't let me be silent any longer.
...
Although Hillary Clinton has offered solid and sensible policy proposals, Obama's strike me as even more so.
...
He also presents the best chance of creating a new politics in which citizens become active participants rather than cynical spectators. He has energized many who had given up on politics. He has engaged young people to an extent not seen in decades.

You can read the full post here.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Will you say no?

Over and over Americans criticize politicians for lacking substance, for avoiding specifics, and, when asked straight questions, for dodging them with vague and roundabout answers. We claim that we yearn for a politician that speaks straight with us or in detail about problems and proposed solutions and we are, rightfully so, quite frustrated when they fail to do so. We like to blame the political system for these outcomes but I believe we need to look in the mirror at our own actions first. I believe we get the politicians we deserve. But that can change.

With the fervor over things like the “bitter” comments and Bosnia; with a media based on 8-second sound bites on the evening news; and with political competitors waiting to pounce on any statement that can be twisted for advantage, we shouldn’t blame politicians for sticking 100% to a bland and scripted message. We, in fact, encourage exactly what we dislike. For those brave enough to attempt a spontaneous answer or for those willing to talk straight about a complex problem we allow the political process and the media to pounce and destroy them if any part of their answer can be misconstrued. We then jump on the pile with comments like “how could they possibly say something like that” or “what was he thinking” often without taking the time to read the original text or to understand the context in which the comment was made.



Think about your own life and the times you have made comments that didn’t come out quite right. Or think about the time you were appalled to overhear just part of a conversation only to learn that you greatly misunderstood the context of a particular statement. We’ve all been in these situations – it’s human. With candidates on the campaign trail nearly 24x7 for weeks on end, it’s no wonder they don’t provide even more fodder for their political enemies. But for the tight scripts we force them to stick too, they just might make some more mistakes. This is a shame. I wish they would “make more mistakes” as that would mean our candidates had left the tight script in an effort to have a true dialogue. If we allowed them some latitude to speak more freely or if we allowed them a slipup once in a while, maybe, just maybe we might actually have some real debate on issues that matter – like how to get jobs to return to towns that lost them 25 or more years ago. We might get politicians willing to talk about ideas and explore solutions that look impossible on the surface but could provide the real answer if only we could dig just a little deeper. But, alas, in our world of 8-second sounds, we don’t reward politicians who step off script. We destroy them instead.

When we allow a few spontaneous sentences from an impromptu question to undo months and years of good work, we are only encouraging the scripted and shallow politics we claim to dislike. If we want to do something about it, we have nowhere to look but in the mirror. But we can do something about it. At a speech by Hillary Clinton on Monday, some audience members took a stand that, I hope, is a sign of true change in American politics. When she began to attack her opponent over a few words taken out of context and when she tried to define someone’s entire being in terms of those few words, some in the crowd booed and yelled “no”. They expressed their frustration with this kind of politics. Will you do the same? Will you stand up and demand a new kind of politician that will forgo attacks and speak straight and in detail about plans?

It doesn’t matter which way you vote, but, if you allow attack ads, 8-second sound bites, and cherry-picked words to define a candidate and sway your vote, you are perpetuating a political system many claim to despise. When you instead allow a candidate to speak freely and explore issues and ideas, you will encourage an open and full debate that might just allow us to solve some of the vexing problems of our time. Each of us has a choice – will you chose to shout “no” to the next attack or will you simply jump on the pile?

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Weary PA? New York Times Article

Have a look at this article from the New York Times. Perhaps this, more than anything else I've read, captures what Barack Obama tried to speak to the other day. My question is this: when Democrats have a tendency to focus on social issues like improving schools, tend to cut taxes for lower and middle-class, and talk of providing some relief for the constant steam of jobs going overseas, how can someone from this town vote against a Democrat? There's more to it as well...when I lived near Philadelphia, I didn't know anyone with a kid in Iraq. Now that I live in central-PA, I know several people with relatives that have been to or are currently in Iraq. They fight our wars, give up jobs that are sent overseas, and get ignored except during the election cycle and they vote Republican. I just don't get it.


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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Sound-bite Politics and why Hillary can’t beat McCain

This week gives us another example of the sound-bite-driven “gotchya” politics that dominates our political process. Earlier this week Obama made some comments that could be interpreted as an insult to groups of Pennsylvanians. If you listen to the entirety of his comments in context, they seem much less problematic. But, let’s set that aside. I want to discuss this issue more broadly as an example of the problem of “sound-bite” politics we seem to be practicing these days.

Anytime a politician says anything that can be twisted and turned into something that it isn’t, the opposition is there to express their “disbelief” that someone could say something so horrid or that someone could be so “out of touch.” Then, for the next 48-hours the only thing you see on the news is a high-stakes, multimedia version of he-said, she-said. Rather than discussing issues related to the divisions in this country, we are left with sound bites such as Howard Dean’s scream, talking heads debating various interpretations of a certain quote, and various volleys back and forth between the campaigns.

Where does this get us? It gets us the division we currentlty have. It gets us the politics of say anything or do anything to get one vote more than my competitor (and who cares if that is less than 50% of the country). What should we do? It’s time for political candidates, news media, and American public to get past this silly form of one-line politics and, instead, begin to focus on the issues. It’s take to take a higher road. But, this is easier said than done. The issues are complex, require time to discuss, debate, and understand. In short, they take longer than the 12-seconds the networks often give to the sound bites they like to play on TV.

I believe, however, that one candidate has taken this high road. Barack Obama has committed to a campaign largely free of this form of divisive, attack politics. Here’s a simple comparison. A visit to the news page of the Hillary Clinton campaign site lists the following top-5 headlines:


4/11 Statement from Spokesman Jay Carson
4/11 Hillary Clinton Sets
Goal Of Cutting Murder Rate In Half
4/11 America’s Mayors Applaud
Hillary Clinton’s "Solutions For Safe & Secure Communities Now" Plan
4/11 Hillary Clinton Reacts to Sen. Obama’s Newly Discovered
Characterizations of Pennsylvanians
4/11 Obama Slams Oil Company Tax
Breaks He Voted For

Two of the top-5 stories seek to “slam” her competitor rather than talk about her own ideas. Now, let’s take a look at the same list from the BarackObama.com website:


4/11 Obama Discusses Plan to Give Shareholders a Say in
Executive Pay
4/10 Obama Discusses Plan to Help
Families, Stimulate the Economy
4/10 Statement of
Barack Obama on President Bush's Stay the Course Iraq
Strategy
4/10 Utah Democratic Party Chair Wayne
Holland Endorses Barack Obama
4/9 Obama
Campaign Statement on Clinton's Latest Misleading Attack Regarding
Iraq

Here you see one reference to Hillary and only in response to an attack she started. But, more important is to look at the BarackObama.com website around the time of Hillary’s, now admitted, misstatements about sniper fire in Bosnia. If Obama practiced the same brand of politics as his competitors in this race, why isn't there a comment on the BarackObama.com homepage that says “Obama releases statement regarding Hillary’s fabricated experiences in Bosnia” or "Hillary lies again: Bosnia story a fabrication." Why doesn’t Barack appear on network TV calling her a liar? Or delusional? Why? Because he doesn’t believe in that form of politics. Obama is about bringing people together, and is not for saying whatever it takes to win.
Again, don’t take my word for it. Go visit the press release pages of the two campaigns (Obama Clinton )and see for yourself. Which one would you want setting the tone for America’s future?
What does this have to do with electability? Well, Clinton’s campaign hasn’t hesitated to slam Obama at any chance. In short, I find it unlikely that McCain will find anything new to throw at Barack. In comparison, think about how much ammunition McCain will have if he faced Clinton. By taking the higher road, Barack has left so much material on the table that McCain will have a field day trashing Clinton. Think I am wrong here? Have a look at McCain’s press releases and then make your decision.

Obama is better than Clinton in the general election because Clinton has tested him like McCain will. You can’t say that the opposite is true. And besides...isn't it better to have a candidate who talkes issues first?

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Communication Skills

I've heard a number of people say "sure Obama is a good communicator but that won't make him a good president" or "he can give a great speech but he never really says anything." I take issue with both of these comments.

I contend that being a good communicator is a requirement for a successful presidency. For a moment, let's set aside the content of communication and focus on the skill or craft of speaking. Andy Rooney, of 60-minutes fame, did a piece last year about the daily schedule of the president. If you don't have two minutes to watch the piece, the basic idea is that the president's daily schedule is jam-packed with meetings of very short duration. The day is so jam packed that the president has people handling many things you and I take care of on our own like, for example, laying out cloths for the next day. Rooney laments that such a busy schedule leaves little time for thinking. I propose it causes another problem - it heightens the need for exceptional communication skills.

With only a short period of time to interact, a president's communication skills can mean the difference between gaining support for an idea and forever losing an opportunity to gain a supporter; between developing a relationship that turns an enemy into an ally and coming off as ill-informed, arrogant, or unaware of the issues that are important to another leader; between motivating staff or the public to commit to a new change initiative and general ambivalence or even outright opposition.

Here's another way of looking at it. Last week Ann Coulter visited Penn State. In her speech she said that George Bush has done such a great job fighting terrorists that Republicans can no longer use that subject as a key campaign issue. Just for a minute, let's take that statement as fact. Let's assume the tactics employed by the Bush administration have, in fact, kept us safe and eliminated much of the threat. Why doesn't the average American see it that way? Why are Bush's approval numbers at record lows? I would argue that, even if he has kept us safe, his numbers are this low because he hasn't the ability to communicate with the American public about the important things he is doing. When he speaks, he doesn't inspire or generate confidence. Rather, he comes across like he is complaining about something most of the time. This is regardless of the content of his message.

You don't believe communications skills matter? Compare in your mind the difference between Reagan and either of the Bush presidencies. Compare Bill Clinton to John Kerry. Compare your favorite teachers from college or high school with those you disliked. What was it about these people that made one group better than another? Often it's communication skills...the ability to connect and relate to people...the ability to read a situation, understand another persons needs and interests and respond in such a way as to show more commonalities than differences. This is a gift that Barack Obama has. And its not just important when talking to the American public. The president must interact with world leaders or all stripes. Communication skills, the ability to inspire, to instill trust, and generate a sense of mutual respect are critical.

Of course a president needs more than just good communication skills. In addition to the craft of speaking, one must also have content to speak about. Some would suggest that Barack lacks substance to much of his speech. I believe this couldn't be further from the truth. If you believe he lacks content, I encourage you to take some time to really listen to some original audio from a speech or two. What you will find is nuance and complexity that is often missing in our political dialogue today. Take, for example his speech on race.

Set aside for a minute his relationship with his former pastor. Take time to listen to the content of this speech and hear the message. I'll BLOG another day about what I heard and will leave it to you to decide if he lacks substance.

Looking for another view on this? Take a look at a Newsweek Blog entry about McCain vs. Barack on education specifics.

Finally, attached below is a nice compilation of impressive speakers, include Barack Obama.

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Should we ever call kids "little jerks"?

After writing my last post, I must admit I was a little annoyed. You see, in gathering the video and quotes for that post I cam across another question of McCain at his old high school. A student asked about McCain's age. If elected, he would be the oldest president ever. He has had cancer several times. The student wondered if there should be concern about this. I view it as a legitimate question. McCain seem to take it that way, gave a solid answer, and then called the kid a "little jerk." I'll grant you that he was joking. But, is it really OK to call a kid a "little jerk", even as a joke, when he asks a question you'd rather not answer?



Watch the video and decide for yourself:



Now contrast that with Obama. A few months ago some pro-life protesters interrupted a speech. It's not the best comparison, but its the best I could find. It was an issue he'd rather not have dealt with then. But, rather than shout them down or allow his supporters to do so, he emphasized the need to listen. Rather than crack some joke, he acknowledged their position and treated them with respect.

Again, watch and decide for yourself.




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Media Bias? Or different points of view?

This post isn't about a candidate. Instead, it's a lesson we ought to all think about...


As I started this blog I made myself one promise. That is, I would not take a media account of an event as fact. Instead, when I write about a comment made by a candidate, I will always try to cite and provide a link to the source audio, video, or text so readers can form their own opinions. This weekend I came across a news story that reinforced my thinking on this topic. I'll get to that in a second, but first, a quick aside.



There are two people standing at an intersection when an accident happens. One of the cars involved speeds away. The police interview the witnesses and get two completely different stories. One might say the car was white while the other swears it was blue. One might suggest there was a pedestrian involved while the other will never even mention any other participants. One may suggest driver A is at fault while the other will swear it was driver B.


In everyday life we have no problem chalking this up to differences in perspective (one person was standing in front of the accident, the other was off to the side), differences in memory (one person wrote down the color of the car while the other is doing the interview with police 2-hours later from memory), or differences in past experience or knowledge (one person is from this area and knows there is a stop sign for only one of the cars while the other person just assumed they both had stop signs). In the case of the accident, we would not likely accuse the other witness of being a left- or right-wing supporter because of the conclusions they drew about the accident. Yet, we do this all the time in the news and we ought not to (at least as our first reflec). Instead, we ought to seek out multiple perspectives and, when possible, the original text/audio/video to allow us to draw out own conclusions. Case in point:

This past week John McCain was speaking at many sites that have a meaningful connection to his life. One stop was his high school. A student asked McCain a question related to the purpose of his trip. The verbal content of the question, and McCain's subsequent answer, are not in question. Two news outlets seem to have nailed the quotes exactly. The meaning ascribed to those comments, however, are quite different.


First, consider this quote from an article on CNN.com (link here to full article):

A student in the crowd asked him, "We're told this isn't a political event, so what exactly is your purpose in being here?"
McCain shot back, "I knew I should have cut this thing off. This meeting is over."

Now consider the coverage of this comment by USA Today (link here to full article):

Katelyn Halldorson, 16, stood up and said the event at Episcopal High School had been billed as non-political yet some of the ground covered had a decidedly political tone. "What exactly is your purpose in being here, not that I don't appreciate the opportunity," she asked.
"I knew I should have cut this thing off," McCain joked. "This meeting is over!"

One used "joked" while the other used "shot back" to describe the comment. What's a reader to conclude? That part is easy - do your own homework. Read various accounts and draw your own conclusion. If you can find video of the event, even better. Watch it and make up your own mind. But - and this is the lesson for us all - don't just assume the first account is correct or incorrect based on how it aligns with your own views. Instead, seek out and look for information that both supports and challenges your own beliefs. That way you can escape any trap caused by potentially biased media.


Ah, yes, back to the original question - media bias. Is CNN biased? Is USA Today? While some would argue this case, I would argue it's a moot point. Remember the accident on the corner? Different people can honestly come up with different accounts. Reporters are just like you and me. They are working long hours, trying to get a story filed and, many times, trying to get home to their family after long trips covering the candidates. Oh, and they have their own beliefs, opinions, and life experiences that, despite effort to the contrary, will influence the choice of words when a story is written (remember the guy who knew the stopsign was only one way?). People have their own interpretations. As citizens, we need to each form our own view rather than allowing others to form opinions for us.


By the way...you think CNN is biased? Check out how this was covered on the air (see video below). They took a third view and called the questioner a "heckler". If they are biases, they better resend the memo. Instead, I'd suggest their reporters ought to take a lesson from Ms. Halldorson and learn how to ask tough questions, but that's a blog for another time.

Oh, and this also gives you video of the question and McCain's response. Draw your own conclusions.


video

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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Independent thinking

You might wonder why Obama doesn't wear a flag pin on his lapel. Honestly, I've never been one to do something "just because everyone else is." Ever since 9/11 I've wondered how long it would be before it would be OK for a politician to skip wearing the pin in public. Here it is, almost 7-years later, and I guess the answer at this point is "not yet" (see CNN article here for Karl Rove's view).

Sure, it's a nice gesture, but I really don't think this can be a measure of one's patriotism. Karl Rove would like you to think this is arrogance on Obama's part. Maybe it is. But, on the other had, if Obama were the type of politician who would do ANYTHING to get your vote (like the folks Rove is used to working for), there's no doubt in my mind that he would be wearing that pin. Instead, he says the following:



In early October, an Iowa reporter asked Obama why he was not wearing a flag pin on his lapel, as many politicians do. The Illinois senator said he wore one shortly after 9/11, but later decided to show his patriotism in other ways.
"After a while, you start noticing people wearing the lapel pin but not acting very patriotic,” he said then. “My attitude is that I'm less concerned with what you're wearing on your lapel than what's in your heart. You show your patriotism by how you treat your fellow Americans, especially those ones who serve."


Maybe this is arrogance. Maybe he is just stubborn. Or, maybe he just thinks its more important to demonstrate independent thinking. But, you can't refute that "the easy thing to do" is to wear the pin lest you annoy a few voters. Yet Obama doesn't do that in this case. Sure, it's a simple situation, but what can that tell us about his decision making process when it comes time to make a call on something that might be unpopular in the short-run but better for us all in the long run?

As kids, when our parents asked us why we did something stupid we might attempt to explain it away by saying "cause Billy told me to." Our parents would follow by saying, "Well if Billy told you to jump off a bridge, would you do that too?" Of course we would answer "Noooo." Parents want independent thinking from kids. Shouldn't we demand that of our our politicians as well?

For my money, I want the politican who is willing to go against Billy on issues big and small. I especially want a politician who is willing to make decisions that could be bad for themself but good for us. If Obama can do it here, when the risk is some lost votes (e.g. maybe bad for him) with no real potental for gain on his part, maybe, just maybe, he will exhibit those same independent thinking skills when it comes time for an important decision, like passing a law that could annoy some PAC. Oh wait...Obama doesn't take money from PACS (that's a BLOG for another day). But you get my point.

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