Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius to lead HHS

I’m a little disappointed with this pick. She will be excellent at HHS, and health care reform is very important, but Sebelius had a real chance of winning a Senate seat in Kansas in 2010 if she decided to run. This probably means the Democrats are pretty confident of getting over 60 without her, and taking Kansas would probably happen only if the Dems win in a rout.

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius yesterday accepted President Obama’s request to become his secretary of health and human services, stepping into a central role in the new administration’s ambitious effort to overhaul the nation’s health-care system.

Sebelius’s nomination comes just days before the White House is scheduled to convene a summit on health reform, an early step in the president’s bold plan to vastly expand the reach of the health-care system. A formal announcement of her nomination is scheduled for tomorrow.

The summit, which is expected to be the first in a series of open meetings across the country, is intended to spotlight the challenges presented by the nation’s balkanized health-care system — including soaring costs and gaping holes in coverage. It is also aimed at rallying public support for an overhaul certain to draw ideological and industry opposition. The health session, similar to last week’s “fiscal responsibility” summit, will open with remarks by Obama. Participants will then split into working groups led by administration officials.

In his budget proposal unveiled last week, Obama set aside $634 billion for a new reserve fund that over the next decade would serve as a substantial down payment on the cost of moving the country closer to universal health-care coverage. About 46 million Americans lack coverage, a number likely to grow as the economic downturn puts more people out of work.

Now that she’s nominated, however, I expect her to be a respected and competent voice behind the push for health care reform.

Krugman likes Obama’s budget

Paul Krugman has been pretty tough on Barack Obama, but he’s very pleased with the budget.

Elections have consequences. President Obama’s new budget represents a huge break, not just with the policies of the past eight years, but with policy trends over the past 30 years. If he can get anything like the plan he announced on Thursday through Congress, he will set America on a fundamentally new course.

The budget will, among other things, come as a huge relief to Democrats who were starting to feel a bit of postpartisan depression. The stimulus bill that Congress passed may have been too weak and too focused on tax cuts. The administration’s refusal to get tough on the banks may be deeply disappointing. But fears that Mr. Obama would sacrifice progressive priorities in his budget plans, and satisfy himself with fiddling around the edges of the tax system, have now been banished.

For this budget allocates $634 billion over the next decade for health reform. That’s not enough to pay for universal coverage, but it’s an impressive start. And Mr. Obama plans to pay for health reform, not just with higher taxes on the affluent, but by putting a halt to the creeping privatization of Medicare, eliminating overpayments to insurance companies.

On another front, it’s also heartening to see that the budget projects $645 billion in revenues from the sale of emission allowances. After years of denial and delay by its predecessor, the Obama administration is signaling that it’s ready to take on climate change.

And these new priorities are laid out in a document whose clarity and plausibility seem almost incredible to those of us who grew accustomed to reading Bush-era budgets, which insulted our intelligence on every page. This is budgeting we can believe in.

Krugman goes on to explain that cutting the deficit with this plan is definitely plausible. We’ll see how it plays out, but Obama seems to have support from the left.

Cutting Cold-War weapons systems

When Barack Obama kept Robert Gates as Defense Secretary, most liberals were disappointed, and the news media focused on how this might impact Obama’s decisions regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While those issues are certainly important, Obama and Gates will be embarking on a mission to radically change the way the United States purchases military equipment.

But if you are a defense contractor who has enjoyed a decade of bottomless Pentagon funding, it was Gates’ comments about a struggle much closer to home that are keeping you up at night. “The spigot of defense spending that opened on 9/11 is closing,” he said. “With two major campaigns ongoing, the economic crisis and resulting budget pressures will force hard choices on this department.”

Gates, the U.S.’s 22nd Defense Secretary, has declared a low-key war against the military services and the way they develop and buy the weapons they use to defend the nation. Up until now, he has done that mostly by jawboning: The U.S. can’t “eliminate national-security risks through higher defense budgets, to do everything and buy everything,” Gates says in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. That futile quest has led to weapons that “have grown ever more baroque, have become ever more costly, are taking longer to build and are being fielded in ever dwindling quantities.”

But his war of words is about to become very real. As he prepares a budget for next year, Gates must decide the fate of a number of fantastically expensive weapons programs the military services say they need. He can’t fund them all–and might be wise to take a knife to them all. In this, Gates has little choice: the military’s annual budget has finished growing, and the billions it once imagined it might spend on future weapons have evaporated. So cuts–and big ones–are coming, and Gates will be the man who makes them.

Though Gates was hired by George W. Bush to clean up the mismanaged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates’ greatest legacy may come in what he calls a “strategic reshaping” that better outfits the U.S. military to wage coming wars. Future weapons buys must “be driven more by the actual capabilities of potential adversaries,” Gates told Congress a few weeks ago, “and less by what is technologically feasible given unlimited time and resources.” Pentagon procurement, he said, is plagued by a “risk-averse culture, a litigious process, parochial interests, excessive and changing requirements, budget churn and instability and sometimes adversarial relationships within the Department of Defense.”

With the release today of Barack Obama’s budget outline, we’re seeing that Obama and Gates are serious about these changes. You’re also hearing Obama talk about how we can’t afford any more “Cold War” weapons systems.

The articles linked above is worth a read. It discusses specific weapons systems, and the stunning costs associated with systems that we no longer need and may be obsolete in a world where inexpensive drones can do the job of piloted planes.

This will not be an easy fight. The problem is that Congress often overrides the needs and requests of the military. Many conservative Senators will scream about wasteful spending, but then they will defend grossly expensive weapons systems if it affects jobs in their districts. Democrats do the same thing.

Based on the “Cold War” rhetoric, it looks like Obama is ready for a fight. He should bring along enough Democrats, especially if they have to choose between health care and these weapons systems.

Broder is shocked by Obama’s ambitious agenda

David Broder has been in Washington for a long time, and President Obama seems to have stunned him with the breadth and boldness of his agenda. Broder sees Obama taking on significant risks, and he’s right about that. Obama doesn’t want to play it safe – he wants to seize the moment and make real efforts to solve long-standing problems.

The size of the gamble that President Obama is taking every day is simply staggering. What came through in his speech to a joint session of Congress and a national television audience Tuesday night was a dramatic reminder of the unbelievable stakes he has placed on the table in his first month in office, putting at risk the future well-being of the country and the Democratic Party’s control of Washington.

It was also, and even more significantly, a measure of the degree to which he has taken personal responsibility for delivering on one of the most ambitious agendas any newly inaugurated president has ever announced.

Most politicians, facing an economic crisis as deep as this one — the threatened collapse of the job market and manufacturing, retail and credit systems here at home, along with the staggering, unprecedented costs of the attempted rescue efforts — would happily postpone tackling anything else.

But not Obama.

Instead, no sooner had he finished describing his plans for spurring economic recovery and shoring up the crippled automotive and banking industries, he was off to the races, outlining his ambitions for overhauling energy, health care and education.

The House chamber was filled with veteran legislators who have spent decades wrestling with each of those issues. They know how maddeningly difficult it has been to cobble together a coalition large enough to pass a significant education, health care or energy bill.

And here stood Obama, challenging them to do all three, at a time when trillions of borrowed dollars already have been committed to short-term economic rescue schemes and when new taxes risk stunting any recovery.

Is he naive? Does he not understand the political challenge he is inviting?

Broder ends this column with the following line: “When we elected Obama, we didn’t know what a gambler we were getting.”

In one sense, he shouldn’t be surprised. Obama was clear about all these initiatives during the campaign. On the other hand, Broder is used to seeing politicians who are too worried about politics and too timid to take bold chances. Obama is not one of those politicians.

Jindal’s disaster

Bobby Jindal had a tough job following Barack Obama’s speech last night, but his performance is getting panned by liberals and conservatives. His reference to Katrina was particularly problematic, as he cited Bush’s incompetence as a reason why we shouldn’t rely on the government now.

Paul Krugman was particularly offended by Jindal’s criticism of volcano monitoring as wasteful spending.

So what did Bobby Jindal choose to ridicule in this response to Obama last night? Volcano monitoring, of course.

And leaving aside the chutzpah of casting the failure of his own party’s governance as proof that government can’t work, does he really think that the response to natural disasters like Katrina is best undertaken by uncoordinated private action? Hey, why bother having an army? Let’s just rely on self-defense by armed citizens.

Meanwhile, conservative columnist David Brooks was very disappointed in the speech.

The Republicans are killing themselves with this mindless opposition. Just repeating tired slogans from the Reagan era will not cut it this time, particularly after the George W. Bush disaster.

The intellectual incoherence is stunning. Basically, the political philosophy of the GOP right now seems to consist of snickering at stuff that they think sounds funny. The party of ideas has become the party of Beavis and Butthead.

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