The watch list as 2011 begins: Who will be Obama’s air traffic controllers and other stories

The watch list as 2011 begins: Who will be Obama’s air traffic controllers and other stories

While President Obama may have ignored my personnel advice, he may have made excellent decisions anyway. If, as the rumor mill has it, Bill Daley, the former Commerce Secretary is to be the new chief of staff at the White House and Gene Sperling is to replace Larry Summers at the National Economic Council, Obama will have picked two pros who can both provide needed continuity and needed change. Daley knows how to get things done and is well-liked by business people. Sperling has done the job, is exceptionally smart and will run a much more open, inclusive shop than Summers … and empowering the economic cabinet is a key must-do for the Obama team.

David Brooks’s op-ed in the New York Times on the uselessness of the pro and con debate about "big government" is half right and half wrong. He’s right it does not matter how big or small government is but whether it works effectively and in support of a nation with the will and resources to succeed. But it is half wrong in that within the debate is a question about the appropriate role of government. Here Republicans argue that government should stay out of people’s affairs and market’s business wherever possible and Democrats are willing to accept a more expansive role. The reality, of course, is that no country can tackle the problems we face as a country without a major role for government. Whether the issue is infrastructure, energy policy, education, fixing what is broken fiscally, ensuring honest and fair markets, protecting the environment or preserving the peace, America’s biggest challenges require the government be there and be effective. Right now though the debate sounds like two dating services that are suggesting the choice in the dating market is between Mother Theresa and Snooki. It is not even the right discussion to be having.

While it may not have been very politic for a U.S. battlefield commander in Afghanistan to liken the situation on the ground to a Tom and Jerry cartoon, it offers yet another insight into the futility of the conflict there. Richard Cohen in the Washington Post gets it exactly right when he calls this an unnecessary war and likens our tolerance of it and the public’s lack of urgent interest in it to factors which could fuel our national decline, akin to what happened during the fall of the Roman and British empires. He is not overstating it. We’re going bankrupt and wasting lives trying to do the impossible for a cause that’s un-winnable. Every day we continue to fight in Afghanistan U.S. leaders are abusing the public’s trust, killing our young and stealing from their orphaned children to pay for it.

Speaking of bankruptcy, I have a sense that Obama’s "air traffic controller moment" will come when a big public pension fund goes belly up and the federal government is asked to step in to bail it out… with a long-line of similar cases on deck. He will face a dangerously slippery slope and public opinion will be heavily for giving the public workers a haircut on their benefits. Obama will face huge pressure from SEIU, one of the most important unions backing him. And he will define whether he is serious or not about pulling the United States out of this mess and getting us back on our feet by whether or not he gives in to that pressure. The right answer is to start negotiating deals downward now, walk the crisis back before it happens, reduce the benefits packages and give the states and municipalities the breathing room they need… or huge lay-offs and deteriorating public conditions are certain to result. Not to mention a big financial crisis.

I have all the respect in the world for Zbigniew Brzezinski. But his op-ed in the Times, in which he calls Chinese Premiere Hu’s visit one of the most important in 30 years, while thoughtfully argued, is misleading on that core point. No doubt, the visit is more important than the last because China is more important than the last time the leaders met. However, by the same logic, the next visit will probably be more important. Further, with a leadership change in the offing, the first meetings with the next generation of leaders are almost certain to be more important still. The key issues for the two countries to resolve are longer term in nature and go to the core question of shaping a successful working relationship between two strategic rivals that are also vital partners. Right now, too much of the power in the relationship seems to have swung to the Chinese. The United States must — through a better understanding of its own national interests and competitive advantages, through marshalling diplomatic support worldwide for its initiatives, and through regaining economic momentum and avoiding international distractions –resume a stronger stance in the relationship. It must resist the temptation to mesmerized by China hype and it must build an international coalition to counterbalance Chinese influence and ensure that before China assumes a greater role on the international stage, it is clear the country is willing to play a constructive role helping to address global challenges from combating proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to maintaining stable financial markets to fighting global warming.

The most important story in the world as 2011 begins: the continuing political unrest in Pakistan, marked by the weakening of the government’s coalition over the weekend and the assassination of the prominent governor of Punjab, a Zardari supporter. A political meltdown in Pakistan is the one event that will have great powers worldwide holding their breaths (although further economic meltdown in the Eurozone and in U.S. states and localities is a close second on this watch list.)