Harpers Targets Obama

The montage combines the cover from the November 2006 Harpers with a photograph of Barack Obama from the news release announcing his keynote address at Harvard Law School's celebration of black alumni on September 17, 2005.

John Dufresne's blog for yesterday featured his caption, "consider the possibility" with a picture of an Obama in 2008 button. I have already mentioned Obama on Charlie Rose in connection with his book tour.

Saturday, October 21, I happened to pick up the November Harper's with the cover story on pages 31-40, "Barack Obama Inc.: The birth of a Washington Machine" by Washington editor Ken Silverstein (email). No no copy has been posted to the site (yet?).

Eric Alterman (blog at Media Matters, Altercation) and Silverstein are currentlyengaging in a pissing match about the article and an earlier article on Alterman by Silverstein in the Villiage Voice which I couldn't find but according to Susan Lehman in her December 4, 1998 Salon Media Circus column entry "Ahoy Mates" was a

vicious hatchet job [in which]... Ken Silverstein, in the Village Voice some years back -- referred to Alterman as "3/4 brown noser, 1/4 cheeky chappy."

Alterman, in his Huffington Post entry "Pre-election Potpourr" on October 19 said that Silverstein had done "a foolish hit job" on Obama. Silverstein, in his blog, Washington Babylon's October 23 entry, "Booted by MSNBC, is Alterman Making a Pitch to be Obama's Press Secretary?" sums up his description of Obama in Harpers:

In the article, I described Obama as possibly the most charismatic Democrat since Robert F. Kennedy, and noted that he is sincere, well-intentioned, and genuinely interested in changing our political culture. The article did take stock of Obama's record in Washington, since much of it looks disappointingly conventional. Because Washington is so intensely hostile to reform and reformers, a progressive like Obama may not be able to accomplish much.

I agree with Alterman that the article, taken in conjuction with its title and cover illustration is indeed a hit job and Silverstein's response seems disingenuous. Rather than being merely "disappointingly conventional," Silverstein depicts Obama as being in the pocket of lobbyists, at least with regard to his support of corn-based ethanol. Consider this criticism of Obama's July appearance at the Center for American Progress's Campus Progress conference :

Despite its audience and ostensible subject matter, however, Obama's speech contained just a singfle call for political action..."Give it up for Mark."...Obama had essentially marshalled his undeniably moving oratory to plump for the classic pork- barrel cause of every Midwestern politician.

Mark Pike, of the Center-sponsored "Kick the Oil Habit" campaign (co-sponsor list) was heading cross country in a flex-fuel vehicle and would only stop at stations selling 85% ethanol fuel, which has been criticized by being bad for conservation because it requires large amounts of fossil fuel for its production, while gasoline gets 30% more miles per gallon.

Silverstein adds that

Obama, Durbin and three other farm state senators opposed a proposal by the Bush administration earlier this year to lower still tariff's on cheap sugarcaneibased ethanol from Brazil and other countries.

Silverstein criticizes Obama for lending his name to a letter with the

dubious implication that Brazilian ethanol is a national security liability comparible to Saudi crude [indicating]...that he is at least as interested in protecting domestic producers of ethanol as he is in weaning America from imported petroleum.

Robert John Keefe (email) in his October 15 entry "Obama and Ethanol" on Daily Blaugue, calls the article "disheartening but unsurprising." He quotes Ted Patzek (sic--it's actually Tad), of the University of California at Berkeley's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering as saying that ethanol production is based on

the massive transfer of money from the collective pocket of the US taxpayers to the transnational agricultural cartel.

Keefe says that Silverstein quotes Patzek, but in leafing back through the article just now, I couldn't find the citation. I was able, however, to find the context for the comment which is from Patzek (email)'s article,"Thermodynamics of the Corn-Ethanol Biofuel Cycle" which appeared in Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, 23(6):519-567 (2004). Tad W. Patzek.

I have tried to avoid political questions, but at some point one should ask how it was possible for a poor agri-industrial technology to grow so explosively in the last four years? The only plausible answer lies in politics. The recent growth of ethanol production could occur only because of the massive transfer of money from the collective pocket of the U.S. taxpayers to the transnational agricultural cartel, represented most notably by Archer Daniel Midlands Co., Cargill Inc., Monsanto Co., and A. E. Stanley Manufacturing Co. This flow of billions of dollars from the pockets of the many to the pockets of the few was accomplished by federal subsidies of corn producers, and the federal and state tax subsidies of ethanol producers. It was spearheaded by many powerful, and I would like to think, thoroughly misinformed politicians.

More ominously, as a country, we have diverted our collective attention from the most important issue of this century: energy conservation and increased reliance on the only renewable source of energy, the sun, and its weak derivative, the wind, see Appendix C. Instead, we have somewhat accelerated the rate of depletion of the precious natural gas and crude oil deposits, in exchange for the significantly more wide-spread pollution of water, soil and air over roughly 1/2 of the area of the United States, the incremental carbon dioxide emissions, the substandard ethanol fuel, and the continuous drain of taxpayers' money.

Keefe says of Obama,

In his attempt to become a viable progressive - that is, a legislator who can count on the contributions that will get him re-elected - Senator Obama has done a fair amount of trimming. I gave up on him a year ago, when he was nowhere in the public discussion of ethnic cleansing in New Orleans. I'm afraid that he's just another Kennedy.


I disagree with Alterman's derisive adjective, "foolish." The question for me, "Is Silverstein's hit job valid?" I decided to do some reading on Obama's position on ethanol. I found a March 21, 2006 interview with Grist Magazine , in which author Dasvid Roberts sums up his opinion of Obama,

when I sat across from Obama in a Seattle cafe booth, I sensed no duplicity. His much-storied charisma makes such judgments difficult, of course, but he seemed to have a grasp of the energy situation far broader than bringing home the pork to his constituents. He acknowledged the limitations of his proposals but was unapologetically pragmatic about strategy. He's playing the long game.

This is what Obama had to say about his energy strategy:

I support significant increases in CAFE standards. But we've brought that to the floor again and again and again, and we can't get it passed in its current iteration. I was one of the cosponsors of the amendment to the energy bill last year -- we just couldn't get enough votes. Including, unfortunately, two of our Democratic senators from Michigan, because they're concerned about the auto industry. No matter how much you want to talk about the big picture, people still think very locally.

I think cellulosic ethanol is probably our best short-term solution. The amount of energy required to produce cellulosic ethanol is a significant improvement over corn-based ethanol. The technology exists. We don't have to change distribution systems; essentially it pumps just like gasoline. It only costs $100 to retrofit any vehicle out there. And if Brazil can do it in the span of three or four years, while cutting their transportation-gasoline use essentially in half, there's no reason we can't do it.

So I guess my answer would be: This is an important series of first steps that moves us in the right direction. It is not sufficient to create a sustainable, long-term energy strategy, but it'll be a component of it.

Reader Alec Johnson responded:

I used to have a great deal of respect for Barack Obama, but no longer do. He voted for the egregious Bankruptcy Bill and Dick Cheney's hideous Energy Bill -- neither are even remotely progressive pieces of legislation.

Everyone is getting on the biofuels band wagon, which is more than a bit self-serving for the junior Senator from Illinois. One wonders if he is innumerate, like most of the rest of our population. Do the math, Barack, we do not have enough land mass to grow biofuel and food, regardless of the alleged (and highly dubious) positive energy yield biofuel proponents profess, we'd need something on the order of three additional continents, each the size of the US, to seriously produce the amount of fuel we consume today, not to mention what we are likely to consume next year. At best, biofuels might have a limited utility as a boutique fuel, produced on farms to power farm machinery. I can only conclude that Senator Obama is either an innumerate fool or just another self-serving politician, perhaps both. Don't be deceived by his smile and posturing. And next time you interview him, ask him how he could vote for the Bankruptcy bill and still style himself a progressive.

Before going on to other charges (the bankrupcy bill, Katrina, Obama's support of Lieberman, etc) I wanted to look further into the ethanol bill. It's current incarnation is S. 2446 introduced on March 16, 2006 and stalled in the Senate Finance Committee. The bill's co-sponsor, Dick Lugar (R-IN) issued a news release June 7, "Greenspan cites need for rapid cellulosic ethanol product." Greenspan's testimony at the Foreign Relations committee that date can be found here.

Lugar characterizes the bill:

S. 2446, which would take a four-step approach to reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil. First, the legislation would spur investment in alternative fuels by increasing the production of cellulosic biomass ethanol and create an Alternative Diesel Standard. Second, it would help increase consumer demand for alternative fuels by providing a short-term, 35 cents per gallon tax credit for E85 fuel and by providing automakers with a $100 tax credit for every FFV produced. Third, it would require the U.S. government to increase access to alternative fuels by requiring the government to allow public access to alternative fueling stations located on federal government property. Finally, it would create a Director of Energy Security to oversee and keep America focused on its goal of energy independence.

While Lugar lists increasing the production of cellulosic biomass ethanol as the first priority of the bill, in actuality, the only specific mention is in section 6, which proposes to amend the Internal Revenue Code to extend the alcohol fuel mixture excise tax credit to cellulosic biomass ethanol. I will leave it up to environmental policy experts to evaluate if that makes the bill worthwhile or if the suspicions of environmentalists are valid, as David Roberts sums it up:

With the smell of pork in the air, greens worry that rather than a balanced package of energy initiatives (efficiency incentives, grid improvements, carbon taxes, etc.), America will simply be saddled with yet another massive, entrenched, politically connected, heavily subsidized industry.


Next, I decided to look Keefe's complaint about Obama and Katrina that " he was nowhere in the public discussion of ethnic cleansing in New Orleans." Obama has always comported himself as a bridge builder. I would not expect him to use the term "ethnic cleansing," which, while perhaps valid, is confrontational. Obama did address Katrina his speech to his fellow Black Harvard Law alums. I have yet to find the entire speech; it is not on his Senate website. However Tracy Jan of the Boston Globe quoted extensively in her September 18, 2005 article, "Obama urges alumni to help fight poverty: Gives speech at Harvard meeting of black grads." According to her, he

urged the nearly 1,000 people in attendance to take personal responsibility in combating the urban poverty brought to light after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

She quotes Obama,

The people that we saw in front of the Superdome and in front of the convention center, they had been abandoned before the hurricane.....The violence has always been there. It just wasn't on your television screen because it wasn't spilling out onto the lives of the rest of us..

Obama spoke about the

festering sores of poverty and racism

I do not ascribe to the White House . . . any active malice....'But rather what was revealed was a passive indifference that is common in our culture, common in our society -- the sense that of course once the evacuation order was issued that you will hop in your SUV with $100 worth of gasoline and load up your truck with sparkling water and take your credit card and check into the nearest hotel until the storm passed. And the notion that folks couldn't do that simply did not register in the minds of those in charge.

In the question and answer period, Obama added,

'We want to ensure that people who've been displaced have opportunities to participate in the rebuilding of their own communities.

Obama gave two statements on Katrina as a senator. In the first on September 5, he

a conversation I had with one woman captured the realities that are settling into these families as they face the future.

She told me "We had nothing before the hurricane. Now we got less than nothing."

We had nothing before the hurricane. Now we got less than nothing.

In the coming weeks, as the images of the immediate crisis fade and this chamber becomes consumed with other matters, we will be hearing a lot about lessons learned and steps to be taken. I will be among those voices calling for action.

Once the situation is stable, once families are settled - at least for the short term - once children are reunited with their parents and enrolled in schools and the wounds have healed, we're gonna have to do some hard thinking about how we could have failed our fellow citizens so badly, and how we will prevent such a failure from ever occurring again.

The second was a February 1, 2006 floor statement in the support of a tax credit amendement that he intended to introduce as part of the Tax Reconciliation Act.

We all know what happened to the families on the Gulf Coast due to Hurricane Katrina, and it will be a long time before these families can rebuild their lives. Many of the families in the affected states were evacuated to other areas, and many of them cannot even afford to go back. And the federal response so far has been inadequate to get these families effectively back on their feet.

We need to do better. At a time when we are debating $70 billion of tax breaks, many of which will benefit those who need the least help, it is critical that we remember the worst off and the most vulnerable members of our society.

The bus is coming. More later.