Iran put on a show of force today as it threatened to cut off oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz if the West follows through with a plan to sanction Iran’s vital oil exports. The US Navy’s Gulf-based Fifth Fleet responded by saying it will not tolerate any such disruption. Around 40% of the world’s oil transported by sea passes through the strait.
** QUICK HITS. While the Republicans scurry about attacking one another and pretending not to, and ignoring Christmas-based polling of Iowa, a notoriously difficult contest to poll correctly even when it’s not a holiday, a vacationing President Barack Obama, now riding (relatively) high slides perilously toward a potentially huge geopolitical crisis. The head of Iran’s navy today made this remarkable statement in a live international broadcast: “Closing the Strait of Hormuz for Iran’s armed forces is really easy. Or, as Iranians say, it will be easier than drinking a glass of water.” … Meanwhile, in California politics, the state Supreme Court is prepping a possible ruling for Thursday on Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to redirect most of the tax revenue from redevelopment agencies to basic services. I think the local governments that sued to protect this golden goose will come up empty. … Brown announced a number of appointments today, including that of Mark Nechodom to be director of the California Department of Conservation. Nechodom, a PhD from UC Santa Cruz who is married to California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, has been serving recently in several senior posts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding environmental markets and climate policy.
** NEW POLL: OBAMA AND DEMOCRATS SEIZE THE EDGE ON ECONOMIC DEBATE. More good news on the fundamentals for President Barack Obama in the form of a new Gallup Poll survey.
Republican behavior in Congress, and rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail, is enabling Obama and fellow Democrats to develop a decided edge on the hot economic issues of the moment.
Democrats and Republicans both give lopsided support to their fellow partisans, continuing the hyper-partisan pattern of the period.
But independents have shifted to Obama’s side of the fight.
Obama is also rated much higher than Congressional Republicans, who just took over the House in November of last year.
Americans have slightly more confidence in President Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress (41%) than in the Republicans in Congress (34%) when it comes to the looming debate on what the government should do about a more permanent extension of payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits. …
These findings, collected on Dec. 27 in Gallup Daily tracking, also show that about a quarter of Americans either don’t have an opinion on the issue (10%) or say they have confidence in neither (15%) or both (1%) of the two partisan groups.
Last week, Republican House leadership reluctantly agreed to the two-month extension of the payroll tax cuts and extended unemployment benefits supported by President Obama and the vast majority of the Senate. The temporary extension forestalled an immediate tax increase for millions of Americans and a loss of unemployment compensation for millions more on Jan. 1. Undoubtedly, the issue will again take center stage as politicians in Washington return from their holiday vacations and face the looming Feb. 29 deadline.
Partisan differences in this confidence measure follow predictable lines. More than 8 in 10 Democrats have more confidence in Obama and Democratic leaders, while more than 8 in 10 Republicans have more confidence in Republicans in Congress. Independents give a slight 35% to 27% edge to Obama and the Democrats. …
A separate Dec. 15-18 USA Today/Gallup poll finds Americans more charitable in their ratings of Obama and congressional Democrats than congressional Republicans. That poll asked Americans to more generally rate the job performance of elected officials in Washington this year. Thirty-two percent of Americans rated Obama’s job performance as excellent or good, compared with the 18% who gave the same rating to Democrats in Congress and the 12% who gave such high marks to Republicans in Congress.
** NEW SURVEY: CONSUMER SPENDING UP. More signs of “green shoots” in the economy today, in a new Gallup Poll survey.
Of course, it’s getting to be late in the recovery for us to be lauding green shoots, though, isn’t it?
Consumer spending is up significantly this month. But it’s all due to an initial burst at the beginning of the Christmas shopping season.
Since then, spending has been flat, dropping back to year-earlier levels.
There are still major downdraft factors at work.
Self-reported daily consumer spending in stores, restaurants, gas stations, and online averaged $83 per day in the week ending Dec. 25 — not much different than the $85 of a year ago. After getting off to a good start during the first three weeks of the holiday season, consumer spending decreased to match 2010 levels in the past two weeks. …
Even so, consumer spending averaged $78 over the five-week holiday period of Nov. 21 to Dec. 25. This is up 4.1% from the comparable five-week period of 2010 and essentially the same as the 4.2% increase Gallup registered over the same period in 2009. …
The 4.1% increase in self-reported consumer spending that Gallup found this holiday shopping season is consistent with the National Retail Federation’s holiday sales expectation of a 3.8% increase. The most positive Economic Confidence Index reading since mid-July, some of the lowest unemployment numbers of the year, the lowest jobless claims since 2008, and the lowest gas prices since February all helped to create a more favorable environment for holiday sales in 2011.
While the spending increases this year may seem disappointing to some given all these positive economic trends, there are some significant countervailing factors. Economic confidence remains worse than during each of the previous two holiday seasons, unemployment and underemployment are still high, gas prices are higher than they were a year ago, and Americans’ evaluations of the way the U.S. government is functioning are at record-low levels. Further, the financial crisis in Europe continues to raise havoc with Wall Street and American companies’ international operations.
The 2011 Kennedy Center Honorees were lauded at the White House in early December. Video footage is available now that the annual special has aired. The recipients are classical violinist Yo Yo Ma, actress Meryl Streep, Broadway singing star Barbara Cook, pop star Neil Diamond, and jazz musician Sonny Rollins.
** NEW COLUMN COMING UP … THE NEW CHRISTMAS TRADITION OF … DOCTOR WHO?
** OBAMA TODAY. President Barack Obama is in Hawaii.
He has received the daily intelligence and economic briefings in Kailua, where he is staying with his family.
Obama has no scheduled public events.
Obama is vacationing in his home state with First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha through January 1st.
He got some mixed but mostly unwelcome news yesterday when 70-year old Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson announced that he will not run for re-election.
Nelson has been a thorn in Obama’s side, going beyond the pragmatically necessary to consistently gum up the works of the Obama agenda. But he is a Democrat, if not much of one, and his vote is needed to organize the Senate.
Now, unless Bob Kerry can be persuaded to return from his comfortable East Coast life to make a run for another Nebraska Senate seat, it’s hard to see how Democrats hold on there, making it all the more difficult to hang on to the Senate majority. Though hardly impossible.
Obama announced that he is nominating two new members of the Federal Reserve board.
Obama will nominate Harvard economist Jeremy Stein and Jerome Powell, an investment banker and former Treasury official, to the two empty seats on the Federal Reserve’s policy-setting board of governors.
The White House’s pick of candidates, who have Democratic and Republican credentials respectively, may help speed their nomination through Congress amid a sluggish economic recovery that has failed to put a major dent in the unemployment rate, now at 8.6 percent.
While neither has laid out detailed views on monetary policy, Stein wrote a paper earlier this year suggesting he would back the Fed’s unconventional efforts to keep down long-term borrowing costs, which have been controversial in Washington. The Fed for over three years has adopted an array of radical measures to keep interest rates low and spur recovery.
Stein, who previously worked for the Obama administration as an adviser to the Treasury secretary and a National Economic Council staff member, specializes in stock price behavior, corporate investment and financing decisions, risk management and capital allocation inside firms. He declined to comment on his nomination.
The choice of Powell, who served at the Treasury during President George H. W. Bush’s term in the late 1980s and early 1990s, could be aimed at mollifying Senate Republicans. They blocked Peter Diamond, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist, saying the Nobel prize winner was not qualified for the job and was too sympathetic to government intervention in the economy.
The Republican candidates, sans Jon Huntsman, are today very fully engaged in the fight for Iowa, just six days ahead of the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
We should have a better idea of how things are going in Iowa on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I’m very suspicious of polls conducted over the Christmas holiday, especially when they are robo-polls.
While these games ensue, Obama is dealing with what might sprout into a full-blown major geopolitical crisis.
Or might not.
The commander of Iran’s navy today said that his forces will shut down the Strait of Hormuz if the US and other nations pursue further sanctions against the Islamic regime to try to bring its nuclear weapons program to heel.
This echoed what an Iranian vice president said yesterday.
Could Iran carry out this threat, which would choke off the world’s largest flow of maritime shipment of oil?
I don’t know.
They can certainly try.
But the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, headquartered in Bahrain — and now you see why it is there — will have a lot to say about that, should the deal begin to go down.
Iran’s naval exercises in and around the Arabian Gulf, aka the Persian Gulf, continue.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has vacillated all over the place on the question of negotiation, now says he will accept the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar for the purpose of holding peace talks.
Longtime Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who finally began to turn over power after fighting off months of Arab Awakening demonstrations with a bloody crackdown, has applied for a visa to enter the United States. To seek medical treatment. Saleh already received extensive advanced medical treatment in Saudi Arabia after an assassination attempt wounded him and killed 11 of his associates. The State Department announced late yesterday that Saleh’s visa request is being processed, but no decision has been made.
Obama is monitoring a variety of other geopolitical crises, mostly related to the Arab awakening, AfPak, and Iraq.
War Zone Times: Iraq is eleven hours ahead of Pacific time, and Afghanistan is twelve and a half hours ahead of Pacific time.
** FROM THE JERRY FILES. Governor Jerry Brown is in Northern California.
He has no scheduled public events as of this morning.
Brown held a discussion yesterday with those Capitol reporters who are still around who were still around yesterday in the Governor’s Cabinet Room.
The topics? The year almost just past and the year ahead. I’ll get into all that in depth next week.
** IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD CAST IN THE GOP’S RACE TO CASA BLANCA. The Republican presidential race was a reality TV show. But now that the primaries and caucuses are coming right up, it’s a road picture. Here’s how each candidate, a distinct type, is doing right now.
The Legend in His Own Mind
There aren’t many historical figures that the ostentatiously intellectual Dr. Newton Leroy Gingrich hasn’t compared himself with lately, and always quite favorably. He even declared himself the nominee.
But he should have paid a little more attention to sports than that National Merit Scholarship, especially in a process that doesn’t value intellectual capability all that highly. Because there really aren’t many games that are over before half-time. … From my December 24th essay.
** KEYSTONE PIPELINE: SMALL PART OF A VERY BIG PICTURE. In the chaos that passes for governance in Washington, the Keystone XL pipeline project looms as a seemingly supreme issue. But it is not. To view it as such is to miss the overall, something our media excels at. … From my December 21st essay.
** NEWTONIAN MOTION: THE BIG TALK CAMPAIGN. … From my December 17th column.
** JERRY BROWN PULLS A TRIGGER, INVOKES ROME, AND FOCUSES ON CLIMATE AND INITIATIVES. … From my December 14th feature.
** TOP DOG IN THE BIG DES MOINES DOGPILE? IT’S NEWT! … From my December 11th column.
** NEWTONIAN MOTION: ACTION BEGETS FLAWED REACTION. … From my December 10th column.
** NEWTONIAN MOTION: IN IOWA, A LOT CAN HAPPEN IN FOUR WEEKS. … From my December 6th column.
** JERRY BROWN AND THE 2012 INITIATIVE WARS. … From my December 3rd feature.
** ALTERNEWT: GINGRICH “ALTERNATE HISTORY” NOVELS REVEAL MUCH ON PRESENT POLITICS. … From my December 1st essay.
** A SUBLIME AND RIDICULOUS DAY: MARS MISSION AND AFPAK DEBACLE. … From my November 28th essay.
** FROM GOVERNATOR TO MOONBEAM. … From my January 3rd, 2011 feature.
** OBAMA: RIDING WITH HISTORY. (NOTE: As Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States, this column was the featured column on the top of the front page of the Huffington Post.) … From my January 19th, 2009 Huffington Post column.
** 24/7 LIVE TV NEWS FEED FROM AL JAZEERA. With the US entangled in three wars in the region, and the Arab awakening underway, it’s valuable to keep up with news and perspectives from the leading Middle Eastern-based TV news network. Based in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar, Al Jazeera is very influential and more than a bit controversial. Click here for a live TV news feed on your computer. The NWN live link to AJ does not constitute an endorsement of the channel’s views. It’s presented as an otherwise unavailable new media window.
** 24/7 LIVE TV NEWS FEED FROM RUSSIA TODAY. Russia has re-emerged as one of the world’s great powers. Click here for a live TV news feed on your computer, bringing you English-language, jargon-free, fast-paced coverage of global and Russian news from the Russia Today channel. You probably already know about CNN International, BBC World, and Al Jazeera. Russia Today, which also features culture, entertainment, and sports, is based in Moscow and is owned and operated by the TV Novosti division of Russia’s state news agency, RIA Novosti. While it’s quite foolish to expect to see, say, criticism of Vladimir Putin on Russia Today, the channel is very interesting nonetheless. With U.S. cable news chattering away as it does, this sort of respite can be informative. The NWN live link to RT does not constitute an endorsement of the channel’s views. It’s presented as an otherwise unavailable new media window.
** TRACK GLOBAL AND NATIONAL ENERGY PRICES IN NEAR REAL TIME VIA BLOOMBERG ENERGY MARKET WATCH. Having crashed over $147 for yet another record on July 11th, 2008, crude oil is trading around $100 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
This is up about $66 from the low of $34 per barrel prior to enactment of the Obama economic recovery program, reflecting a low point in global economic activity, and down about $14 from the price at the time of the Osama bin Laden raid.
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