Kate’s Corner – A “Banana Split” for the Ambassador

By Kate Doak.

It’s not often one gets the opportunity to meet with a close, long-term friend of a sitting US President, a US Ambassador or one of the finest legal minds around. So when I was offered the chance to interview US Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich just before he addressed the Media 140 conference in Canberra earlier this week, it was an experience well worth savouring.

Audio Interview with US Ambassador to Australia – Jeffrey Bleich – Media140 – 23-9-2010

Having known President Barack Hussein Obama since attempting to recruit him as a Clerk to the US Appellate Court from Harvard Law School, Ambassador Bleich has an insight on one of the most powerful men in the world that not many people have. When asked about how he first met the future President, the Ambassador responded with a genuine level of fondness in his voice for a time that would have been considerably less stressful for the both of them. This is important as it shows the level of humanity behind politics, that the public often either isn’t exposed to by the media or refuses to acknowledge.

With even the Ambassador himself admitting that during his youth he thought that Diplomats only drank beverages on verandahs in foreign locations, it’s evident that not many people are familiar with ins and outs of diplomatic service. Not only does the Ambassador have to be the US representative to the Australian Government, he also has to keep himself apprised of the well-being of all Americans whom are currently residing within Australia, business negotiations which are taking place between various multi-national organisations that might influence the Australian-US relationship and the perspectives of the President on various issues. It is due to this the Ambassador argued, that Diplomats will retain their status as extremely important people, as reassuring factors in foreign affairs such as a firm handshake, direct eye-contact and confident body language can’t be reproduced by electronic means.

Ambassador Bleich also offered a key insight into American politics and the unique role that the media plays during US elections. Unlike the US, Australia requires all of it’s citizens of voting age to participate in State and Federal elections. That means that everyone has to vote in Australian elections, whether they are disenfranchised with the political climate or not.

In saying that there are things that the United States could learn from Australia’s use of Compulsory Voting, the Ambassador inadvertently touched upon the role that the media has upon the US electoral system. Under the “Voluntary Voting” system, the Public can easily become disenfranchised with an incumbent Politician and refuse to vote if a given media outlet within their electorate decides not to report on the Politician’s accomplishments. Like-wise, the public can quickly become enfranchised with a politician if the media only reports upon their accomplishments. This in turn could create a situation where a media outlet and the advertisers that support them can directly influence the result of an election, by manipulating their audience to support a specific type of candidate.

By briefly stating his interest in studying Australia’s electoral system, it is also evident that the Ambassador is interested in learning from Australia’s democratic experience. Given that democracy always needs to be nurtured if it is going to survive, both Conservatives and Progressives within the United States and Australia alike would benefit from the insight that Academics with “Real-World” knowledge such as Ambassador Bleich have to offer.

In closing, I asked the Ambassador if he could define his position as an Ice Cream flavour. Needless to say, I doubt that the US State Department has ever been described as a Banana Split, with sauce covering Vanilla Ice cream, on top of a layer of Rocky Road and Fudge.

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Kate Doak is a Postgraduate student at the University of New England, Australia. Since 2004 she’s changed career paths twice, genders once and has developed a major interest in radio. These days, Kate mostly focuses on Modern History and International Politics.

Kate’s Corner – Social Media: Political Tools or Campaign Nightmares?

By Kate Doak.

During the Media 140 conference in Canberra this week, I had the privilege of hearing US Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich, give a lecture on the impact of Social Media on the 2008 US Presidential Campaign. Given the Ambassador’s role as a key organiser of the “Obama for America” movement , his close friendship of over 20 years with President Obama, not to mention his previous position of Special Legal Advisor to the President in the Obama Administration, it was a non-partisan lecture on campaign politics that was well worth attending.

Note: Podcast of Ambassador Bleich’s speech and all “Media 140 Canberra” panels available here

With the media being dominated by organisations like Fox News on the right, the Gay media on the left, as well as NBC, CBS, CNN and ABC somewhere in-between, it is evident that there is a healthy range of voices present within the United States. By highlighting the pros and cons of the conventional media, as well as those of social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and online Bloggers, Ambassador Bleich was able to describe how Obama was able to use both forms of media to their utmost advantage during the campaign. By calling upon his experience as a Community Organiser, Bleich stated that Obama was able to rally those around him to accomplish feats using Social Media that seasoned Campaign Strategists on all sides of politics had previously thought impossible.

This in turn explains why the Obama Campaign used Social Media so heavily during the lead-up to the 2008 Presidential Election. Unlike in previous campaigns, social media gave the Democrats the opportunity to counter many of the stories that were being released by conservative elements of the campaign, while championing the stories that were promoting their cause. This not only strengthened support for Obama within the Democratic base, but also provided an open-resource for any swinging Independents who were interested in fact checking stories before they went to the Polls. In contrast, the McCain-Palin campaign had relatively few interests in online media, culminating in McCain saying that he doesn’t even know how to turn a computer on.

In a strange twist of fate, Ambassador Bleich then highlighted the emergence of Social Media as being one of the key reasons as to why some Democrats are now disenfranchised with the Obama administration in the lead-up to the Congressional Mid-term Elections. To paraphrase the Ambassador: The 2008 Democratic Presidential campaign had a “High School Friendship” effect upon the Democratic base and various Independents. Just as High School friends drift apart over time, so do some relationships in politics. While such political relationships are easy to maintain in a campaign, it’s harder to do so once in government.

No-where is this fact more evident than in the Democratic faction of the Lesbian and Gay Community. Even though President Obama promoted LGBT personnel into key positions within the US Government, while also helping pass an amendment to the Hate Crimes Act, he has experienced a drop in popularity amongst LGBT activists. Due to the “Glass Half Empty” mentality that’s rampant within parts of the Gay community, this is to be expected given the fact that their agenda hasn’t been fulfilled within the short span of two years. This has been particularly evident within prominent Gay blogs such as Pam’s House Blend, AmericaBlog and Towleroad, as well as Gay rights organisations such as SLDN, Servicemembers United and GetEqual over the issue of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.   As a result, many of the President’s victories on issues surrounding Transgender rights and Equal Opportunity within civilian Federal organisations have either been ignored, or criticised as only being enough to promote fund-raising.

Ambassador Bleich also stated that while some people may act abusively online, the fact that there are others there to challenge such behaviour from all sides of politics equals things out. In an effort to protect the President for the 2012 Campaign, maybe this more than anything explains why the Obama Administration have rarely challenged their critics, or had interviews with members of the LGBT media who would otherwise force them to do so.

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Kate Doak is a Postgraduate student at the University of New England, Australia. Since 2004 she’s changed career paths twice, genders once and has developed a major interest in radio. These days, Kate mostly focuses on Modern History and International Politics.

Daily Dose EXCLUSIVE: Obama’s Massachusetts Heckler

I was watching the coverage of the President’s speech at the Martha Coakley rally at Northwestern University today, when I noticed a pro-life heckler shouting. Par for the course anymore, right? I ignored it and kept tweeting. After the speech, they re-ran footage of the heckler being escorted out – and I could not believe my eyes. I had met this man only on Thursday, and he was carrying the same sign. I didn’t get his name at the time, nor did I get his also-protesting young son’s, but we had a very interesting discussion for at least an hour on Thursday afternoon.

It all started because I wanted to finish my tuna sandwich in peace. Continue reading

Hmmm…Does the President Support the Public Option?

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During President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress last night, delivered over the din of Republican obstruction, he spent 7 paragraphs speaking about the need for a public health insurance option, and included one in the White House’s reform plan.  What did the Associated Press take away from all of this?

Analysis: Obama willing to deep-six public option

This analysis seems to spring from these two sentences:

For example — for example, some have suggested that the public option go into effect only in those markets where insurance companies are not providing affordable policies. Others have proposed a co-op or another non-profit entity to administer the plan. These are all constructive ideas worth exploring.

So, two sentences placating the GOP’s and Blue Dogs’ macaroni art constitutes a repudiation of the public option?

Read the rest at Mediaite

Americans Get President’s Message, Democrats Not So Much

briefing1At today’s White House press briefing, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs cited an NBC poll that shows that shows that only 45% of Americans currently believe in “Death Panels.” He cited this as evidence that the President has been effective in debunking myths about health care reform.

I would argue that 45% is an awfully large number to believe in a health care Sasquatch, but even granting that, the President’s effectiveness at combating myths is cold comfort if the Democrats in congress don’t get the message.  I asked Gibbs what happens to the next health care provision to become the subject of an urban legend:

TC:  On health care, you were talking about Chuck’s poll earlier, that — I mean, the good news that most Americans no longer believe in death panels. But the fact remains that Section 1233 was taken out of the House bill. So what can you do to reassure voters that the same fate won’t befall other provisions of the bill if some rumor like the death panels gets started about the public option?

MR. GIBBS: I don’t — I’m not following the thesis of your — the section that’s been pulled out.

TC:Section 1233 about the end-of-life care.

MR. GIBBS: It’s been?

TC: There was a report earlier this week that it’s been dropped.

MR. GIBBS: Well —

TC: Is that not true?

MR. GIBBS: This is in a Senate Finance Committee bill that nobody has seen? Look, what I’m saying is, I think the President is going out there and explaining what those provisions are and what they’re not — regardless of whether they’re in what section of what bill at what time, I think it’s something that the President has been focused on doing and correcting the record. I think it has more to do with a sustained dialogue in dealing with the misrepresentations as it has whether or not a provision may or may not have been dropped.

While I’m happy to credit the President with quelling some of the “death panel” nonsense, I would be more comforted if he could lend some of his, shall we say, fortitude to his panicky congressional standard-bearers.

Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipients Visit the Briefing Room

alex01thumbThe sixteen recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this country’s highest civilian honor, were awarded their medals today in the East Room of the White House. I was lucky enough to cover it today, even though I ended up, as per usual, behind everybody. Good pictures were hard for someone without a professional setup to come by – out of about 250 I took all day, I think maybe 30 are passably good. Gallery of acceptable shots to follow.

About an hour after the ceremony concluded, Billie Jean King herself came down to visit the briefing room, and consented to answer a few short questions. “I want to give everyone who made my medal possible a piece of it, but I wouldn’t have enough pieces!” she said to the press as she turned the medal over, revealing the engraved name on the back: Billie Jean Moffitt King. “I don’t deserve it, though. Harvey Milk deserved it,” she added. “This is the first time, I think, the LGBT community has really been honored by the White House.” Continue reading

White House, Big Pharma, We Have a Problem

pillage1

In June, I wrote a story that raised big questions about the value of the government’s $80 billion deal with Big Pharma, and wondered if the deal came with the trade-off of killing legislation that would enable the government to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical compannies for lower prices.  Such a trade-off would be indefensible.

That week, I took extraordinary steps to determine if this was the case.  I spoke personally with a White House Deputy Press Secretary twice, followed by multiple emails.  I also spoke, personally, to the press official for the Senate Finance Committee, followed by multiple emails.  There was no doubt as to what I was asking.  I never got a response from either of them.

That Thursday, I asked Gibbs about it at a daily briefing:

Q Thank you, Robert. I have two quick ones on health care. The first one, in the speeches about the $80 billion deal with the pharmaceutical companies, I haven’t heard anything about negotiating price — Medicare negotiating price with the pharmaceutical industry. I wanted to know if that was one of the tradeoffs for getting this $80 billion was that we’re not going to pursue that now.

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, again, the structure of part of that agreement was to use a portion of that $80 billion to pay up to — for the pharmaceutical industry to pay up to 50 percent of the cost for a name brand drug for a senior that falls between the point at which Medicare Part D stops providing help, and when catastrophic coverage — I think it is $6,500, a little bit more than $6,500 — level kicks in. So filling in that — what’s commonly known as — ironically, in health care — the doughnut hole, about — that up to 50 percent of the name brand — the price for that name brand drug would be paid for, and I think that provides a hefty discount that will bear appreciable benefits for seniors all over the country.

Q Has there been an agreement not to pursue a Medicare –

MR. GIBBS: I don’t know the answer.

Q I’m talking about S. 330.

MR. GIBBS: What was that?

Q Senate bill 330?

MR. GIBBS: You’re 330 bills ahead of me on that. (Laughter.) I will check on it.

Of course, now, the New York Times reports that the White House confirms that the deal did include an agreement to kill price negotiation laws:

In response, the industry successfully demanded that the White House explicitly acknowledge for the first time that it had committed to protect drug makers from bearing further costs in the overhaul. The Obama administration had never spelled out the details of the agreement….A deputy White House chief of staff, Jim Messina, confirmed Mr. Tauzin’s account of the deal in an e-mail message on Wednesday night.

“The president encouraged this approach,” Mr. Messina wrote. “He wanted to bring all the parties to the table to discuss health insurance reform.”

This is deeply disturbing on many levels.  If Gibbs didn’t know about this provision after the deal was made, then it stands to reason that the President didn’t know, either.  With the Senate Finance Committe stonewalling me about it, one could conclude that they kept the President in the dark about it until it was already a fait accompli.

The other possibility is that Robert Gibbs was left in the dark, a frightening prospect for a White House reporter, and for any American.

Beneath it all is the fact that the government dealt away our right to negotiate lower drug prices (just like any other large customer), and they did it for peanuts.  This is a disgrace.

I emailed Gibbs and his deputy for an explanation, and am awaiting a reply.

Update: Jake Tapper asked Gibbs about the discrepancy at today’s White House Press Briefing.

TAPPER:  Can I just ask a quick follow up?  In June you were asked about the deal and whether or not the deal with PhRMA implied that the White House signed off on no other legislation, such as allowing Medicare to renegotiate with PhRMA.  And you said you didn’t know the answer to that. Was it because you personally didn’t know or because the Senate Finance Committee hadn’t informed the White House of that aspect of the deal?

GIBBS:  You’re asking me to recall why I didn’t remember something in June.  I — I — that I don’t know the answer to. Obviously, the agreement that we have is — is in the confines of health insurance reform that’s being worked on right now.