Blog Posts by Jeff Greenfield

  • Second verse, same as the first: Why Obama’s second term isn’t cursed

    By Jeff Greenfield

    Poor Barack Obama. After fighting and spending his way to a close but clear re-election, he’s doomed to four years of agony thanks to that “second-term” curse, which afflicts just about every president who has had the misfortune to win another four years.

    The litany appears compelling: the martyred Lincoln; Grant mired in scandal; FDR suffering big political setbacks; Nixon’s disgrace; Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal; Clinton’s impeachment; George W. Bush’s collapsing popularity. A second term sounds so unappealing, it’s almost surprising Obama didn’t ask for a recount.

    Except, there are two things worth remembering about this “curse.” First, it doesn’t really afflict every second-term president. Second, for many presidents, the woes are rooted in actions and decisions taken during the first term—which raises a dicey question about what might come to afflict this president.

    Theodore Roosevelt was enormously popular throughout his “second” term (his “first” term was

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  • Lotto fever? Hey, let’s use it to fix the federal budget

    By Jeff Greenfield

    So another mega-lottery has come and gone, another spate of news reports and long lines at convenience stores, the same inane question from reporters (“What are you going do with all the money?”), the same closing shots of reporters with their own tickets, promising the chuckling anchors that “with any luck, you won’t be seeing me Monday.”

    Left unasked by the reporters is how much money those eager buyers would have had if they’d banked what they spent on lotteries over the years—thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in far too many cases—or whether the spread of state lotteries to 43 states has seen a steady rise in compulsive gambling. (It almost certainly has.)

    Left largely unexplored is which states have broken their promises to use the net proceeds from a combined $56 billion in annual lottery ticket sales to increase spending on education, rather than treating the lottery as an apparently painless, voluntary tax in place of the more painful, involuntary

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  • Why Abe Lincoln was lucky

    By Jeff Greenfield
    It’s no wonder audiences are flocking to “Lincoln,” the new film about the 16th president. It’s a clear-eyed, dramatic, and ultimately inspiring tale that portrays Lincoln not as a saint, but as a hard-nosed, determined political leader who uses all the tools of politics, high and low, to push a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery through a reluctant House of Representatives. From uplifting rhetoric to political threats to temporizing on the issue of equality to patronage to bribery, Lincoln and his allies deploy every weapon at their command to win the battle.

    But as the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural still echoed in the theater, I found myself thinking that in one sense, Lincoln was lucky. All he had to contend with was ingrained racism, a war-weary nation and daunting political arithmetic. What he didn’t have to deal with was…modern media.

    He didn’t have to wage this fight in a time when every backroom deal, every casual remark, every public

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  • A modest proposal: Let’s make February ‘National Governing Month’

    By Jeff Greenfield

    Did you know that Hillary Clinton has a commanding lead in the Iowa caucuses, just 162 weeks or so away in 2016? That’s what POLITICO reported—“exclusively,” no less—60 hours or so after President Barack Obama was re-elected.

    Did you know that Republicans are optimistic about re-taking the Senate in 2014, what with 20 Democratic seats in play compared with only 13 GOP seats? The Washington Post offered up a detailed look at the field in September, two months before the 2012 races had been decided.

    Did you know that Republicans Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie and John Thune might run for president next time, along with Democrats Andrew Cuomo, John Hickenlooper and Martin O’Malley?

    Now I know what you’re thinking: Here comes another rant deploring these worthless exercises in political prognostication.

    But friends, the truth is I have given up the ghost. The forces that propel the political community into premature evaluation—or is it

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  • Don’t get cocky, Democrats: The post-Romney GOP looks just like you did two decades ago

    You’re looking at a political party that has lost the popular vote in five of the past six elections; whose one winning presidential candidate achieved the White House thanks to a fluke; and whose prospects for the future seem doomed by demography and geography.

    No, it’s not today’s Republican Party you’re looking at—it’s the Democratic Party after the 1988 elections. And the past (nearly) quarter-century is an object lesson in the peril of long-term assumptions about the nature and direction of our political path.

    Consider where the Democrats found themselves that November. They had just lost their third straight presidential election, and not to the formidable Ronald Reagan, but to George Herbert Walker Bush, a WASP aristocrat prone to sitting down at a diner and asking for “a splash of coffee.” They’d lost by more than seven points in the popular vote, and by 416-111 in the Electoral College, winning only 10 states.

    The most enduring element of their geographic base had vanished. The

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  • Election night 2012 was a good night for California, civility and statheads

    By Jeff Greenfield

    Forgive me if I don’t offer thoughts on the impending Republican civil war, the effect of Hurricane Sandy, the demographic nightmare confronting the GOP, or prospects for the 2016 Iowa caucuses now just a short 1,100 days or so away.

    There’s plenty of that for your Wednesday pleasure. But Tuesday night produced other news that’s worth your attention.

    First, California voters made two decisions that will have a profound impact on the state’s fiscal and political life. They approved Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to increase sales taxes and income taxes on the affluent to ease the state’s perennial budget dilemma. (California’s 34-year-old Prop 13 requires a two-thirds vote in the legislature to increase taxes, an all-but-unreachable level.) Had Prop 30 failed—and most thought it would—the already draconian cuts in California’s schools, public universities and other services would have been just a prelude to further slashes.

    In another decision, the

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  • My plea to the undecided: Stay home!

    By Jeff Greenfield

    As the momentous day approaches, with epochal consequences for an anxiously awaiting world, I take pen in hand—make that apply fingertips to keypad—to renew a traditional plea I first made more than 30 years ago. It’s a plea I’ve made in print, on the air and, now, through the miracle of digital technology. But its message never changes.

    It’s a plea directed to those of you who are still uncertain about which way to vote. And it’s as simple as it is heartfelt: Stay home.

    The candidates have been at this for years; both President Obama and Mitt Romney began running for the presidency six years ago. They’ve made speeches, answered (or evaded) questions and raised billions to convince you of their worth—or the other guy’s worthlessness.

    The media have been covering their every move and word, even when the candidates thought they weren’t. (Can you say, “Cling to their religion and guns”? “47 percent”?) The coverage has been slanted, scrupulously fair, superficial, in-depth,

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  • Why Hurricane Sandy might cost Obama the popular vote—but not the presidency

    This year’s black swan arrived on a rush of wind.

    Once again, a highly unlikely, unanticipated event has roiled the waters—literally—late in the campaign cycle. Twelve years ago, it was the revelation of George W. Bush’s long-ago drunk driving arrest that likely cost him the popular vote and almost cost him the White House. Four years ago, the September collapse of Lehman Brothers and the near-collapse of the global financial universe turned a likely Obama victory into a certain one.

    And this year, the impact of Hurricane Sandy makes it more likely that we’ll see a presidential election where the winner winds up winning fewer votes than the loser.

    Even before Sandy struck the East Coast Monday, an observation was gaining hurricane force: What if Sandy had struck a week later? What if, on Election Day, tens of millions were without power, with mass transit shut, roads flooded, polling stations shut or inaccessible? Would states or the federal government postpone the voting?


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  • In his final debate with Obama, Romney played it safe. Was that what voters wanted?

    There were times during this last debate when I almost thought I could hear the words of Mitt Romney’s advisers playing in his head:

    “Look, big guy, you’re on track to win this thing. What they want to see tonight is a calm, confident leader, unthreatening, informed, unruffled. So don’t get up in Obama’s grill. Bring the conversation back to the economy when you can, and be the reasonable, credible Commander-in-Chief the voters want.”

    That was clearly the strategy Romney executed Monday night. He was at pains to agree with President Barack Obama on matters ranging from the deployment of drones to standing with Israel in the face of an attack. He drew attention to Obama’s sharp criticisms by saying “attacking me is not an agenda”—a line he repeated later. He stepped back from a frontal assault on the administration’s confusion over Libya, speaking more broadly about the Middle East, observing, “We can’t kill our way out of this mess,” and later talking about the need to promote

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  • The nail-biter: Why winning—or losing—a squeaker would be historic for Obama

    As the last debate approaches, the specter that haunted me a while back still hovers over this campaign: the possibility that we may be faced on election night with two, three, many Floridas. I now imagine both parties deploying AWACS filled with lawyers and organizers, circling the country, parachuting forces into New Hampshire, Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Iowa and Colorado as state after state deadlocks on election night.

    Whether or not this nightmare comes true—and I devoutly hope it does not—this campaign has already earned its place in the annals of the unusual. An incumbent president facing a very close election is overwhelmingly the exception rather than the rule.

    Since the beginning of the 20th century, only three incumbents have won close elections.

    Woodrow Wilson in 1916 won a 3-percentage-point popular vote margin, but it was California’s 13 electoral votes that gave him the White House—votes he won with a 3,700-vote plurality.

    Harry Truman’s 1948 upset was won with about a

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