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Archives for February 2010

The real drama still to come

Mark Mardell | 23:35 UK time, Thursday, 25 February 2010

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No theatrics, eh? The leading man has set the stage for the Democrats to hurry into the next act. Opening soon: A thrilling drama when they rush a healthcare bill through the Senate, to howls of protest from their opponents. But it will be the audience reaction that matters in the end.

At the end of the long Blair House meeting, President Obama has told his Republican opponents to go away and do some soul-searching to see whether they can find some compromises and do a deal on healthcare. He knows they won't.

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He said at the outset that he didn't want this meeting of more than 40 top politicians from both parties to become political theatre, and on the whole it didn't. There was detailed policy debate and the president concluded that there were several areas where there could possibly be compromises with the Republicans.

These might be important, but they are not central to the fundamental difference between the parties. He knows that.

The Republican message was unmistakable. The Democratic plans, whether the House bill, Senate bill or the Obama compromise between them, had been rejected by the American people in opinion polls, in town hall meetings, and in elections. The only way forward was to start from scratch and tackle reform step by step, the Republicans argued.

President Obama told them bluntly, baby steps would not get them where people needed to go.

He said his opponents had to deal with the core problem. Millions of Americans had no health insurance because they couldn't afford it or because they were turned down due to their medial condition.

He said the parents of a child with asthma who are denied insurance or the small business laying people off because their health care premiums were soaring couldn't wait another five decades.

One exchange illustrated the real gulf that does exist.

One Republican maintained that America had the best healthcare system in the world. As evidence, he said that a former prime minister of Canada (which has a similar system to the NHS) had flown to the US to have heart surgery.

The president went for the opening he'd been given. The folks he was worried about were not premiers, or sultans, but working people who couldn't afford health care insurance. "We shouldn't pretend that they don't need help", he said.

Several times, Republicans urged President Obama not to use the device of "budget reconciliation" in the Senate. It requires a simple majority, not the usual 60 votes out of 100 to avoid bills being talked out. But it looks as if that is exactly what is going to happen. Perhaps Pres Obama's most telling quote of the day was this.

"I think the American people aren't always all that interested in procedures inside the Senate. I do think they want a vote on how we are going to move this forward and I think to most Americans a majority vote makes sense."

That will be the next great drama. But this was a serious, sensible debate where just about every contribution was thoughtful and intelligent. The White House will hope the plaudits go to the leading man, who was sometimes challenging and combative, but always attentive, open and reasonable.

But the meeting also demonstrated to the American people that while they may long for bipartisanship, it is not always possible.

There are fundamental philosophical differences between the parties and no amount of goodwill can bring the curtain down on that.

'No political theatre', says the leading man

Mark Mardell | 17:43 UK time, Thursday, 25 February 2010

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"I hope that this isn't political theatre where we're just playing to the cameras and criticising each other, but instead are actually trying to solve the problem," said President Obama.

President Barack Obama

Perhaps it was a vain hope in a situation where 41 politicians from opposing parties are together in a room. He says he's exploring whether they can bridge the gap between them.

So far, it has been largely good-tempered, and there has been a real debate with people interrupting the president and challenging his assumptions.

Many had their own emotional stories. The president's was about his mother:

"My mother, who was self-employed, didn't have reliable healthcare, and she died of ovarian cancer. And there's probably nothing that modern medicine could have done about that. It was caught late, and that's a hard cancer to diagnose. But I do remember the last six months of her life - insurance companies threatening that they would not reimburse her for her costs, and her having to be on the phone in the hospital room arguing with insurance companies when what she should have been doing is spending time with her family. I do remember that."

Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee opened for the Republicans, saying the American people had rejected the current plans. He wanted the president to start over with a new bill focussing on reducing the costs of healthcare to the government:
Senator Lamar Alexander

"I was trying to think about if there were any kind of event that this could be compared with, and I was thinking of the Detroit Auto Show, that you'd invited us out to watch you unveil the latest model that you and your engineers had created and asked us to help sell it to the American people. And we go and you do that and we look at it and we say, that's the same model we saw last year, and we didn't like it and neither did they because we don't think it gets us where we need to go, and we can't afford it. So as they also say in Detroit, again, we think we have a better idea."

He warned that the Democrats should not use a method called budget reconciliation to push this through the Senate "like a freight train".

"Resist jamming it though in a partisan way," he said. The president replied that now was not the time to get into what would happen if the meeting failed, but reconciliation had been used 21 times in recent political history.

The key to the outcome may be the way the president is chairing this, firmly, making notes, trying to drag the Republicans into a concrete debate on detailed issues.

So far, he is succeeding. Rather curiously he is framed by a sprig of ivy and its shadow, part of a trompe l'oeil painting in the garden room of Blair House.

The building is where Lincoln tried to persuade Robert E Lee to command the Union army.

Pres Obama's task is just about as daunting. Indeed, the Republicans in the room are likely, like Robert E Lee, to decide they would rather fight for the other side. Gen Lee's eventual surrender after a long hard fight ended the civil war. But this president is far from certain of such a victory.

Obama's healthcare balancing act

Mark Mardell | 08:02 UK time, Thursday, 25 February 2010

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Obama_226.jpgThe Blair House summit probably won't go down in history. It may be forgotten by next week. I doubt that many of the participants are looking forward to it. But I am, with the degree of relish that some reserve for the Super Bowl or the FA Cup Final. It is a moment of risk and possibility that should delight the political connoisseur.

The stakes are very high. Healthcare reform was a big Obama promise in his presidential campaign. It would disappoint his core supporters not to get something through. Indeed, it would surely disappoint him to fail, where Bill Clinton failed. In the first year, Obama had to do Afghanistan. He had to deal with the economy. Healthcare was his policy of choice. To fail to get some change would be the proper rather than current use of the term an "existential threat".

Clearly since Republican Scott Brown's victory in taking what was supposed to be a safe Democratic Senate seat, Obama has made a deliberate and conscious decision to return to his campaign promise to govern in a bipartisan way. The claim that he is some sort of left-wing ideologue, even by an American definition of far left, is over done, but last year he didn't seek out compromise on this issue.

Democracy chastens politicians and both the president and the Republicans will strive to co-operate simply because the American people seem to want a cross-party, or bipartisan, approach. But the parties are so far apart that this summit is merely a game of chicken.

The Republicans want to tear up what is on the table. Indeed, apparently they argued long and hard about the shape of the table. They could not afford to look churlish and reject the apparent hand of by bipartisan friendship proffered by the president.

Nor can they fall into an obvious trap.

They seem confident in their interpretation of the polls, that a very clear majority of the American public reject the various Democratic plans, be they House, Senate or White House. We will see how they plan to play it but they are right to scent danger.

On the surface Obama's trap looks perfect. Like one of those rare moments (rare for me anyway) in chess when any move your opponent can make has you salivating with pleasure. Accept any little involvement and they are held in a deadly embrace. Reject all the offers of compromise any they look surly and hard line, the party of "no".

I suspect they must go for the latter and attempt to paint Obama as the one who won't compromise. He must know that and will have another trap prepared.

This promises to be theatrical and the quality of charisma on the Hill is sorely strained. But it is very high-wire stuff: a single puncturing interruption could undo the president. A strong performance from him could change the weather. Or I suppose I could be really wrong and it will be detailed and dull, a delight only for wonks. But it would still be about the blame game.

So let's assume the Blair House summit passes without Rapture or lions and lambs getting it together on the White House lawn. Imagine the parties are as far apart as ever. What happens next? That is what is what is so difficult to predict.

Obama could admit failure and blame it on the Republicans. Quite good politics, I think; it at least avoids his economic message being wiped out in the lead-up to the mid-terms. But it is ego damaging and disappoints the base.

He could go for a process called "budget reconciliation" and push it through the Senate on a simple majority. This seems a favourite of many Democrats who think a win is a win, helps millions of people, and it doesn't matter they will be accused of liberal arrogance.

This looks to me like putting what they believe will be eventually popular policy before the crude politics of image. As we say in Britain, "very courageous, Minister".

He could try to persuade House Democrats to vote for the Senate bill, intact, as the only alternative. No clear downside if it works, but they are a difficult bunch and it could consume the rest of the year without any certainty of success. He could go for a slimmed down option, as the Wall Street Journal suggests, which looks pragmatic in a desperate sort of way.

But for now, we are between tick and tock.

'Nothing costs Toyota more than a loss of trust'

Mark Mardell | 22:21 UK time, Wednesday, 24 February 2010

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Akio Toyoda

Perhaps the meeting between Toyota's top bosses and members of Congress was never going to be easy.

Toyota's president has been on Capitol Hill for an awkward session filled with mutual misunderstandings, muttered consultations and lengthy translations.

The Japanese failed to give the committee much detail and when they tried to be nice, it backfired.

The head of North American operations attempted to gently correct a Congresswoman who said she wanted to buy American, but had chosen Toyota.

It was an American car, made by American workers, he said. "Are you blaming Americans?", she asked incredulously, totally missing the point he was trying to make. He made it again but didn't get a better result.

When Toyota president Akio Toyoda attempted to answer one part of a long-winded question, a Congressman spoke across the interpreter and demanded he answer another part.

Mr Toyoda's lengthy, formal apology didn't seem to make any impact.

What did emerge from a series of less than gripping exchanges was that the boss of Toyota didn't know about these problems until the end of last year and seemed unaware of what he called "the content" of a meeting at which the US Department of Transportation warned of the safety issues.

One Congressman said it felt like a "hanging before a trial". The atmosphere was one of mutual incomprehension, which may indeed be part of the wider problem.

But the most heartfelt words from a Toyota official came when the company's North American President, Yoshimi Inaba, was asked if there had been an instruction not to discuss liability for the fault. He denied that and said that "nothing costs Toyota more than loss of trust".

Toyota: Looking for answers and contrition

Mark Mardell | 16:12 UK time, Wednesday, 24 February 2010

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It will be difficult for today's hearing on Toyota to outdo the emotion and tension of yesterday's event. Rhonda Smith wept as she told her terrifying tale of speeding at 100 mph (161 kmh) and calling her husband just to hear his voice one last time. Luckily, or miraculously (she told the committee that "God intervened"), the car slowed.

Rhonda Smith

But the point was that this happened in 2006. If the company had listened to her and her husband, lives could have been saved. "Shame on you, Toyota for being so greedy," she concluded.

Head of Toyota Akio Toyoda's written testimony suggests she may have hit the nail on the head. The company had just over 13% of the US market in 2005, and 17% last year.
Mr Toyoda blames today's safety issues on the pace of growth. He says that traditionally safety had been the number one priority, more important than quality and volume, but these priorities have become confused. It won't help that the US transport secretary Ray LaHood told the committee that Toyota's bosses in Japan were a little bit "safety deaf".

Mr Toyoda's general admission of failure deals with past faults, but the committee may be more concerned with the possibility lives could still be at risk today.

The testimony from US head of Toyota James Lentz didn't help. It was emotional. Tears came to his eyes as he recalled how he lost his brother in a car crash 20 years ago and explained that he knew how the families of victims of faulty cars felt.

But he was given a fierce grilling and seemed uncertain how to answer a central question.

Toyota say that the sudden acceleration is down to mechanical problems such as sticking on a floor mat. Members of Congress took very seriously the evidence of some outside scientists that it was an electronic fault. Mr Lentz in general stuck to the Toyota line but said he couldn't be 100% sure the recall would deal with all problems. Perhaps that is just natural caution. Who can be 100% sure of something like that? But it didn't leave a great impression.

Mr Toyoda will tell the committee that he is deeply sorry. His prepared statement says his grandfather founded the company and that his name is on every vehicle. "When the cars are damaged, it's as though I am as well", he will say.

But he will have to come up with answers as well as contrition. I'll let you know if he does the latter in my next entry

Cameron: the new Obama? (In a bad way)

Mark Mardell | 15:48 UK time, Tuesday, 23 February 2010

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It's not often the American media take much notice of British politics although Mr Brown's management style is making some headlines. But rather more interesting was this article claiming conservative leader David Cameron may be the next Obama. But not in a good way.

David Cameron and Barack Obama

The American conservative author worries a little that Mr Cameron uses the word "fair" but decides that this is not automatically a bad thing, although it probably is. He continues to say that most of Mr Cameron's policies back government, not the taxpayer:

"He's a big-spending politician who takes over from another big-spending politician. In the long run, this is a recipe for the Tories to be a minority party. And if Republicans follow the same approach, they also will be a minority party".
His conclusion sounds even more damning: "Nixon with a smile".


There is a concerted push by the right in the US to make sure the Republicans move to a more conservative position and don't drift to the centre. The conservative cause has been given a huge impetus by the Tea Party movement.

The movement is both economically conservative and populist, deriding Washington politics in the evergreen certainty that being against the political establishment is a vote winner.

That makes Scott Brown's vote so interesting. Remember, he was the Republican victor in Massachusetts who took what was Ted Kennedy's seat off the Democrats.

He was elected with a lot of Tea Party help, but promised to be independent. He has now voted, along with a handful of other Republicans and all the Democrat senators for a jobs bill.

How will the right react to this display of bipartisanship? Is it a move towards the centre or it just a painless way for Mr Brown to signal he's different, before getting down to business as usual?

'Obamacare' unveiled

Mark Mardell | 18:09 UK time, Monday, 22 February 2010

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This is an important week for President Obama. Indeed, one leading commentator says it will shape the next three years of American politics.

President Obama.jpg

Up until now, despite all the talk of "Obamacare" there was no Plan Obama, just a presidential wish list.

That was perhaps a mistake. All generals fight the last war and many felt Bill Clinton's healthcare reform failed because it was written in the White House and rather imperiously handed down to the politicians on the Hill.

President Obama allowed the Senate and the House a free hand and got in return two bills, a lot of spending on pork, town hall meetings, the Tea Party, and a muddled debate that has left the American public confused and worried.

Oh, and no bill. The months of wrangling meant that the election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts last month deprived the Democrats of the 60 votes needed to force the plan through the Senate.

Now the White House has published its own plan. There's no public option. There's less pork. The really new measure is a plan to allow the government to curb large raises in charges by insurance companies. That may be big government. It comes just as one big insurer announced plans to increase premiums by 39%.

All this is ahead of a televised presidential meeting with Democratic and Republican politicians on Thursday.

Republicans who do not smell a trap must be rather naive. There's no doubt the public sees bipartisanship as a higher good, but for many politicians it's a game of chicken.

President Obama is tempting his opponents to come up with their own plan or look churlish by rejecting his offer and any reform. Conservative commentators suggest they should go along but not say much, hoping the public back their broad argument against the plan.

But Mr Obama doesn't need many Republican defectors: having all the Democrats plus one Republican on his side would do the trick. The president badly needs something that either looks like a victory or, and perhaps this could be more important in an election year, something that allows him to paint the Republicans as the bad guys.

Why a Republican big cheese bashes brie

Mark Mardell | 22:06 UK time, Friday, 19 February 2010

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There've been quite a few cheesy lines from a conservative conference in Washington as a parade of presidential hopefuls took to the stage to display their wares. Mitt Romney told a joke:

"In case you didn't hear the late-breaking news, the gold medal in the downhill was taken away from American Lindsey Vonn. It was determined that President Obama is going downhill faster than she is."

Pretty high on the cheese-o-metre.

But it was Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty who went for the lactose intolerant vote.

Tim Pawlenty

He took a bash at elites who drink chablis and eat brie. Politico - accurately but perhaps in a rather eliteist manner - noted that these are scarcely the choice of today's elites.

He is probably saving his best lines for 2011. Like French cheese, American politicians are at their best when about to run.

But what is it about the American right and cheese?

It was, I believe, the writer of The Simpsons who invented the sobriquet "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" for the French, but it was enthusiastically taken up by Republicans.

Tasty cheese, runny, smelly, even blue, is often used as a symbol of a revoltingly decadent taste, something far from the common people. That's rather the opposite of its image in France where this simple pleasure unites peasants and elite in both connoisseurship and dreams of a common rural idyll.

One wouldn't have thought that the robust individuals of the conservative movement would wilt before strong flavours. They don't sneer at BBQ beef or chilli peppers, after all.

I have always suspected it has become a symbol of the alien and the foreign simply out of embarrassment. Americans have many skills, but cheese making doesn't appear among them, as anyone who attempts to chew on rubbery orange cheddar can attest.

But I've just finished reading The Cheese Nun, a chapter in a delightful compendium of food writing from the New Yorker, entitled Secret Ingredients.

It profiles an American nun who became an expert in microbiology to make better cheese. It contends that Americans make fantastic cheese, which - it argues - can only be made like moonshine, in secret, and sold under the counter, because of ridiculously tight food regulations.

A ripe case for small government conservatives, I would have thought. The Tea Party is all very well, but what about the Cheese and Wine Party?

I am eager to hear from American conservatives who, while not having blue blood in their veins, like blue veins in their cheese.

The see-saw of diplomacy

Mark Mardell | 22:34 UK time, Thursday, 18 February 2010

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The meeting seemed to be choreographed to keep tensions damped down, in the Map Room, not the Oval Office. The only picture was a single still of President Obama and the Dalai Lama, apparently in animated conversation.

President Obama with the Dalai Lama; copyright: White House

But it doesn't seem to have worked. The White House statement was pretty tough:

"The President stated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People's Republic of China."

That last bit is where the White House felt they were being cleverly diplomatic, by backing the Dalai Lama's "third way"; that means autonomy within China rather than independence from it.

The Chinese response was very strong:

"The US act grossly violated the norms governing international relations...It also went against the repeated commitments by the US government that the US recognises Tibet as part of China and gives no support to 'Tibet independence'."

Fiery stuff. But I wonder how much it will matter in the long run. I suspect that even all this time after the end of the Cold War, we are still getting used to an older way of doing business.

The iron curtain divided nations into firm friends and dark enemies. Perhaps it is more normal for relationships between what used to be called Great Powers to see-saw up and down, hostile on some issues, co-operating on others.

The real test of US-China relations will not be the Dalai Lama but what happens on sanctions against Iran. We may know the answer to that question soon.

Can China-US relations only get worse?

Mark Mardell | 02:05 UK time, Thursday, 18 February 2010

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pic1.jpgLines of Chinese diggers destined for American building sites stand in the snow in Baltimore docks, just unloaded from a hulking ship.

The giant container cranes move steadily down the dockside unloading the metal boxes.

"The green ones are from China," says Mark Montgomery, senior vice-president with Ports America. There are lots of green ones. Around 300,000 of them every year.

Baltimore's port does more business with China than with any other single country, and that business is growing.

Perhaps that is not surprising: this year China replaced Germany as the world's largest exporter. Last year a second shipping service doing business with China opened up at the docks and privately Mark Montgomery thought one of them would struggle. They are both doing well.

He has seen all the speculation about worsening relationships with China but is emphatic that it has not harmed trade.

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Indeed, he tells me business is so good that Ports America is spending more than $100m building a new dock. Berth Four will allow even bigger ships from China to dock when the Panama canal is widened.

Of course the imbalance in trade, the fact that China exports far more than it imports, is one of the sources of friction. The US trade deficit with China was $266bn in 2008 and last September President Obama slapped a tariff on Chinese tyres. China responded in kind with taxes on chickens and car parts.

There is annoyance in the Obama administration at what it sees as an undervalued Chinese currency.

This year other friction has produced sparks: The sale of arms to Taiwan; a cyber attack on Google; repeated American pressure over sanctions against Iran. Within the last few days there has been the dumping more than $34bn worth of bonds.

And of course there is today's visit of the Dalai Lama to the White House (more on that when it happens).

But how serious is this dip in relations between the two most powerful countries in the world? I turned to a former director of Asian affairs in the National Security Council, Professor Victor Cha who is now at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

He told me that the Obama administration appeared to be taking the reverse approach to that of the last two US presidents. Bill Clinton and George W Bush started off being tough with China but ended up taking a pragmatic line.

In his own first year, Mr Obama took a much softer line and told China what its leaders wanted to hear: that they were a big global player with a central role.

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But, said Professor Cha, China did not play ball on the issues that mattered most to Mr Obama, namely climate change and Iran. The professor did not fault the president for trying, but says the White House is now taking a tougher approach in 2010.

He says that in China itself there is a debate between those who want to continue with the policy of a "serene environment" - not rocking the global boat in order to best grow their economy - and those who believe the time has come to take on the mantle of a great power, taking more assertive action in the world.

But, he added, the US and China were "mutual hostages" because of their economic links, and those who talk of the danger of China dumping the US debt forget what harm that would do to the Chinese economy.

The reality of the relationship may lie more in the Baltimore docks than in angry words about a meeting in the White House Map Room.

Obama's hopes for a chain reaction

Mark Mardell | 16:51 UK time, Tuesday, 16 February 2010

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President Obama.jpg

The president has attempted to kill three birds with one stone today.

He announced big government loans to help build two new nuclear power plants in Georgia. Although the US gets 20% of its energy from nuclear power, these are the first plants to be built in more than 30 years, since the Three Mile Island disaster.

First off: jobs, jobs, jobs, it'll create more than 4,000 of them.

Clean energy: flanked by three men in hard hats he told his audience, that "to meet our growing energy needs and prevent the worst consequences of climate change, we'll need to increase our supply of nuclear power".

It's that simple. This one plant, for example, will cut carbon pollution by 16m tons each year when compared with a similar coal plant. That's like taking 3.5m cars off the road. It won't persuade all the environmentalists, but it is an argument that does weigh heavily with some of them.

Bipartisanship: There seems little doubt many Americans want to see their politicians rolling up their selves and getting on with the work, a spirit so lacking in Congress according to Senator Bayh.

But President Obama isn't just creating a touchy feely mood but challenging his opponents to give something back and support legislation on carbon capping. Those who have long advocated nuclear power - including many Republicans - have to recognise that we will not achieve a big boost in nuclear capacity unless we also create a system of incentives to make clean energy profitable.

That is not just my personal conclusion; it is the conclusion of many in the energy industry, including CEOs of the nation's largest utility companies. Energy leaders and experts recognize that as long as producing carbon pollution carries no cost, traditional plants that use fossil fuels will be more cost-effective than plants that use nuclear fuel.

And the president wrapped it all that up by raising the fear that if America doesn't press ahead with nuclear power and other non-carbon technology, it will fall behind the rest of the world. Not bad for a morning's work.

Bye Bayh, Blue Dog

Mark Mardell | 20:32 UK time, Monday, 15 February 2010

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A leading Democratic senator from the centre-right of the party has decided not to stand in November's mid-term elections. It will probably mean his party will lose a seat he could have held. But is Evan Bayh really giving up politics altogether?

Evan Bayh.jpg

His wife and two boys stood alongside him as he said he loved serving citizens but that "I do not love Congress". Things would be better if Washington DC was more like Indiana, he said. He was disappointed at the lack of bipartisanship. He wanted co-operation, rather than conflict between the parties.

He said there was too much ideology, not enough practical problem-solving. Senator Bayh said he stood for "progress, not politics". It's a pithy soundbite for someone who feels he can serve more by running a charity or an educational institute.

This sort of attack on Washington, on party-political bickering, this call to work "across the aisle" is just what many Americans want to hear. Call me an old cynic but it sounds like positioning, rather than abandoning politics.

Senator Bayh said he was "confident" of holding his seat, but his decision has made it much less likely the Democrats will hold it in November.

Evan Bayh is the fourth sitting Democrat to give up the fight. Of course none of them say the ship is sinking, let alone admit to being rats. Bryan Dorgan from North Dakota said at the time: "Frankly, I believe if I were to run for another term I would be re-elected." Frankly, it's impossible to know if he's right but his decision has made it more likely that that seat too will go Republican.

President Obama's old berth in Illinois could also be lost after his replacement decided not to run again after accusations that he tried to buy the seat (he was cleared but was admonished by the Senate ethics committee.) Chris Dodd's resignation on the other hand probably helps his party hold the seat.

It may not be a more bipartisan Senate after the November elections but it is likely to be a more Republican one.

Sending signals over the Dalai Lama

Mark Mardell | 08:24 UK time, Monday, 15 February 2010

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Barack Obama will see the Dalai Lama in the White House this week. They met once when Mr Obama was just a senator, but what degree of warmth and enthusiasm will he show as president ? After all, he put off meeting the Tibetan spiritual leader before his trip to Beijing due to an unfortunate "clash of diaries".

Now that the meeting is back in the diary, China has again protested. The president needs a friendly China, not least over sanctions against Iran, but tensions have been rising between the two big powers - over trade and the US sale of arms to Taiwan.

There is something both ritualised and predictable about this diplomatic dance.

Pres Bush and Dalai LamaAll US presidents since 1990 have met the Dalai Lama and it would be noteworthy if Obama kept him at arm's length. But he doesn't want to turn the familiar affront to Beijing's rulers into something more serious.

So will there be a televised chat in front of the cameras? Will the president take him up to Capitol Hill as Bush did? Or will there be a simple still photograph taken by the official White House snapper? The West Wing mandarins are as capable of sending elegant signals as any in Old Peking.

From breaking news to broken news

Mark Mardell | 16:12 UK time, Friday, 12 February 2010

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clintonblog.jpgClinton's cardiologist stood outside the hospital, looking cold and none too well, answering a barrage of questions ranging from those seeking a sensational headline - "was this a wake-up call?" ("no"), "did this make a heart attack more likely?" ("less likely"), to the bizarre "What brand of stent was used?". Someone even had the temerity to ask an old-fashioned reporterly question - "How long did the procedure take? "

When it was all over I reflected that when I started in journalism the doctor's statement would probably have been the first we would have heard about the event. "Elder statesman undergoes minor procedure: resumes work on Monday". It might have earned a couple of paragraphs or a glancing reference on the evening news.

But of course nothing else was covered all evening on the American 24 hour news networks. For us in the BBC Washington office it was pretty dramatic. We'd heard a major network was going to break into programming with a news flash.

I sat in my office, speculating wildly, and I must admit terrorist attack was at the front of my mind. But thankfully I was wrong.

ABC News went on air to say Bill Clinton had been taken to hospital and had undergone surgery. Let's be blunt about this. At the back, possibly the front, of every journalist's mind was the possibility he might die. However regrettable, there's no getting away from the fact that the death of a major figure is a huge news story.

Forgive me for being so crude, but it is true. ABC had been the first to announce the death of Ronald Reagan. Had Clinton broken his leg it would have been a story, but it would not have triggered this sort of high octane coverage that had ABC's competitors going on air at once with speculation. No one wants to be the last to tell their viewers the sad news. Multiple Twitters from political junkies spread the news virus like a giant sneeze within minutes of ABC's news flash.

But within a quarter of an hour there were hints that it wasn't going to be that sort of story. Within an hour the ex-president's staff had issued a statement making it clear that he was in good spirits and good shape. It had gone very quickly from breaking news to broken news. I happen to think we at the BBC judged this just right, giving it the right prominence and not going over the top.

But I am not suggesting any of the other networks got it wrong or were overexcited. The drama of a former president being rushed to hospital is a bigger story anyway for US stations than it is for a world or UK audience.

But there is a sort of relentless logic to 24 hour news. Once a potentially huge story has been identified, news stations have to follow the narrative they have started to tell, ignoring any other story, questing to find something, anything to talk about while they try to answer the bigger question they have raised in viewers' minds.

It is not in human nature, to say, "stand down, it was not what we we're worried about, go back to sleep". In this case the networks did something of a body swerve and changed the coverage into a lesson about healthy hearts and lifestyle rather than a look back at a career.
Do you relish this wall-to-wall coverage - indeed is there any way for a news organisation to avoid it and not be dangerously behind the curve?

US tightens screws on Iran: Who will join in?

Mark Mardell | 18:44 UK time, Wednesday, 10 February 2010

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President Obama at the White House Briefing.jpg

President Obama yesterday warned Iran that "we are developing a significant regime of sanctions". The grammatical logic of his sentence suggested that with "we" he meant the "international community". The big question is still who is included in that pronoun's embrace.

The US has gone it alone today, trying to put the financial squeeze on the Revolutionary Guard. There's no sign so far of anyone else joining in.

The president also said of sanctions: "the UN will be one aspect of that broader effort". One aspect. My guess is that they hope for some co-ordinated action from Russia and the European Union before going down the lengthy and tortuous UN route.

The US treasury action is intended to bite by freezing the assets of a company called Khatam al-Anbiya (The Last Prophet). It is apparently involved in huge contracts to build roads and tunnels, irrigation projects and pipelines within Iran. This is an old, but interesting article which mentions some of its techniques.

Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey is quoted as saying that the Revolutionary Guard "consolidates control over broad swaths of the Iranian economy, displacing ordinary Iranian businessmen in favour of a select group of insiders, it is hiding behind companies like Khatam al-Anbiya and its affiliates to maintain vital ties to the outside world."

So who else is going to help? The president said the Russians were "forward leaning". They seem rather to be swaying gently back and forth.

Russian deputy foreign minister Sergie Ryabkov has said that "in this new situation of course the question of sanctions, of working out a new sanctions resolution, gains additional relevance," while also suggesting they are not a good idea.

Hillary Clinton's attempts to suggest to China that the alternative to sanctions may be chaos in the Middle East and a jump in oil prices doesn't seem to have had any impact.

China seems no nearer agreeing to sanctions and according to this analysis would want something really big in return.

President Obama's policy of creating a new atmosphere so the world's most powerful countries and power blocs act together on the biggest issues is still being tested.

It certainly hasn't failed yet. But the lack of result that can be measured in months will embolden critics still further. For those bored with the whole diplomatic approach, the Foreign Policy magazine has a good cut out and keep guide to those who want to launch the bombers now.

US demands answers from Toyota

Mark Mardell | 02:06 UK time, Wednesday, 10 February 2010

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Every snow cloud has a silver lining, and Toyota could use a little slither of light at the moment. Because of the weather the first planned investigation by politicians of the recalls has been put off.

But the agony has merely been postponed. Toyota are just getting another two weeks to answer suggestions that they still don't know what has gone wrong. Some senators are pressing for their own inquiry into whether the company and the government acted fast enough.

Toyota is running a wholesome all-American TV ad attempting to combine reassurance with profound apology, but it is likely to be washed away in the growing flood of bad news stories. US officials are investigating yet another possible flaw in the cars once known for their safety.

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Association is examining 83 complaints that the Corolla can veer left or right at over 40mph (65km/h). They have to investigate the complaints and haven't decided to hold a full-blown inquiry. But the agency itself is being criticised for being slow off the mark investigating the sticky brake problem, so they seem likely to err on the side of caution.

The company has to tread very carefully. When I was based in Europe I was constantly told by politicians that it was hopelessly outdated of me to talk about Toyota as a Japanese carmaker. It was, they said, a global company, which had become one of Europe's largest businesses, employing 4,000 British workers.

Toyota says it employs 172,000 people in the US (the vast majority in dealerships), but there is no feeling, at least in the media, that it is anything but a foreign firm. That is perhaps because the USA has a car manufacturing industry of its own, and the UK doesn't any more. But I wouldn't be surprised if American carmakers in Detroit were feeling just a tinge of schadenfreude.

Getting the balance right

Mark Mardell | 17:33 UK time, Tuesday, 9 February 2010

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Michelle Obama

"I love burgers and fries. And I love ice-cream and cake. And so do most kids," the First Lady told ABC, making the point it is all about getting the balance right. She added that no one thinks it is much use the government telling people what to eat.

At the launch itself, the First Lady spoke of a time when she was a working mum, tempted to serve microwave meals and fast food until her doctor warned her of the danger to her children.

Among the measures she announced:
-a voluntary agreement with food companies for clearer labelling on packets
-another voluntary agreement with companies supplying school meals to cut sugar, salt and fat in their foods
-$10bn over ten years to update school meals services and increase the number of children taking them
-$5m to set up more farmers markets
-$400m to bring grocery stores to poor areas.

The president has signed a memorandum which does suggest greater government involvement in the future. It sets up a task force which is chaired by his domestic advisor Melody Barnes and includes the cabinet ministers for health, agriculture, the interior and education.

Their job? To make new recommendations on how to ensure access to healthy, affordable food, especially in schools. The president wants the first part of their plan on his desk within 90 days.

Michelle Obama and the fight against obesity

Mark Mardell | 07:31 UK time, Tuesday, 9 February 2010

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michelle_ap.jpgMichelle Obama is in a tradition of First Ladies who don't want to be simply smiling supporters for their man (Patron Saint, Eleanor Roosevelt). But it is a tricky business, finding something meaty enough to be meaningful without straying too far into controversial preserves of elected politicians a la Hillary.

Mrs Obama has settled for motherhood and less apple pie. The First Lady will today, if you'll pardon the inappropriate expression, put some flesh on the bones of her campaign to slim down the US's kids. A White House event followed by Larry King Live, no less.

She has already warned that America's current young people are the nation's first generation heading towards being less healthy and dying earlier than their parents. She says she wants to "change the health status of an entire generation."
We already know in outline her prescription: more exercise, better school meals, and greater access to healthy foods, particularly in the inner cities. She'll have on hand young athletes, the Watkins Hornets to help her with the former, Will Allen from the group Growing Power for the latter.

The First Gardener obviously wants to lead by example but I am interested to see what the balance will be between exhortation and enforceable prescription.

One online Black magazine, Root, argues it comes down where you tax and spend, not just personal choice. Others suspect it is all a plot by school dinner ladies' unions.

For Michelle of course has another ally beyond the Hornets and Mr Allen: her husband. Before her White House event he is signing a Presidential memorandum on childhood obesity. Again, watch for how far this will go beyond warm words into the deeply political.

In passing, I'm touched some of you noticed my absence last week. Not a hasty trip to Argentina that some suspected but child care, school runs, bedtimes but especially cooking meals.

Michelle, I hope, would approve of their thoughtful preparation and freshness, if not their total calories.

The limits of American power

Mark Mardell | 08:10 UK time, Monday, 8 February 2010

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snowI don't mind shovelling out the drive, or not being able to leave the house. It is the bitter bone deep cold which gets to me. That's why, writing some 38 hours into a power cut, my tone is perhaps a little sour. I am not alone in my discomfort suffering the consequences of "snowmaggedon." But as white covers the landscape, it reveals the limits of American power.

America has for decades projected an image of modernity and technological superiority, disguising a dirty little secret. Behind the chrome, it's crumbling. At least, it doesn't feel very up to date. Many Americans don't travel widely and so believe their own propaganda.


But living here, Washington can feel like the second city of a not very prosperous emerging economy, rather than the capital of the Free World. The snow of course is not anyone's fault, but the power cuts, or outages, as Americans call them, most certainly are.

For some inconceivable reason in the USA, or at least this part of it, electric power is carried above ground on telegraph poles, not, as in most of the world, underground. Cost and distance might make this understandable in Kansas, but I scratch my head to think of a reason in the DC area. So in hurricane and snow, thunderstorms or heavy rain, in any of the inclement weather which regularly batters us, power lines are vulnerable to falling trees and wires coming adrift.

Of course power cuts happen else where. But in four years living in Belgium I didn't experience one, and the one that I remember in the UK was during the 1973 miners' strike. There probably were others but they can't have lasted more than a couple of hours.

I was toying with writing something along these lines a couple of weeks ago when we last had heavy snow. In the few months we've lived here we had already had two longish power cuts, a day and half a day, and I was hoping there wouldn't be another as I trudged down the unmoving escalator into the metro. The escalators seem to be broken more often than not. When you get down the immobile staircase the stations are uniformly dimly lit. The metro is very efficient but grim.

My own fault, I am sometimes told, for being un-American enough to use public transport. But the local roads are no better. It is hardly believable that the major highways leading from the prosperous suburbs into the capital of the largest economy in the world are pocked and scarred with potholes of every imaginable shape size and depth. Street lighting is low, and sporadic: you need a torch to go out after dark in the suburban streets.

This is perhaps about spending public money, but the overhead cables have me baffled. Surely in the long run it is cheaper for the companies to dig trenches than to pay gangs of workers to turn out in the middle of the night to fix multiple broken wires.

Snowmaggedon has by no means been all bad. Finger puppets by torchlight replaced electronic games for the children, and wrapped in blankets we got out the board games. We at first admired the pioneering spirit of our American neighbours as they dug out their driveways in the dark at the height of the blizzard. Then chortled with even greater admiration when we heard that it was so they could check into the nearest hotel and drink Bloody Marys through the frozen blackout.

No doubt some will criticise me for being ungracious about my new home and suggest I should go back to the UK if I don't like what I see. But my job is to report what I find. The feeling of living in a submerging economy has been a shock to the system. But 46 hours after the trial began, the power came back on and I am feeling more charitable, bathing in the warm glow of central heating and the ability to access the internet to file this.

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