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On Issues, Obama Poetry Won't Rhyme

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Barack Obama is such a stand-up guy that he'll stand up twice -- once for each side of an issue. The poetry reading on change and hope is over. Now that he has to talk about real policy, there's little rhyme in the rhythm.

Take James Johnson, who was Obama's adviser on picking a vice president until his resignation Wednesday. Nothing wrong with rich businessmen. They can be smart and help solve America's problems. But Johnson's chief specialty has been in helping himself.

He's apparently been a "friend of Angelo" -- that is, Angelo Mozilo, the former head of the infamous mortgage monger Countrywide Financial. Like other well-connected "friends," Johnson received mega mortgages from Countrywide at rates considerably below that offered the average toiler.

But that's not the worst part. Johnson was CEO of Fannie Mae, a giant corporation that buys mortgages from private lenders. Fannie mortgages enjoy a taxpayer subsidy in the form of an implied government guarantee. Thus, Fannie Mae was of enormous use to Countrywide. In 1995, Mozilo let Wall Street know that he was "working very closely" with Johnson.

That's still not the worst part. The least appetizing entry on the Johnson resume reads "Santa Claus of the executive suite." While sitting on the UnitedHealth Group board of directors, Johnson agreed to grant then-CEO William McGuire a legendary $1.4 billion in stock options.

For his services, Johnson was soon made head of the compensation committee at UnitedHealth -- and at four other companies, where he made sure that the top men were generously rewarded. And he didn't do badly himself. UnitedHealth, for one, gave him $175 million in stock options on top of his annual director's fee of $400,000.

Bluntly put, Johnson had participated in the looting of the American health care system. In one ugly example, UnitedHealth tried two years ago to dump St. Joseph Health Services, of Rhode Island, from its network after the Catholic nonprofit objected to the insurer's ludicrously low reimbursement levels. It was noted at the time that McGuire's most recent stock option cash-out ($124 million, modest by the standards of "Dollar Bill") was 150 percent of what St. Joseph's 2,000 employees made put together .

And to think that Obama last year introduced a Senate bill to rein in executive compensation.

On nuclear energy: Last December in Iowa, a young woman asked Obama, "Are you truly comfortable with the safety of nuclear energy?"

He responded, "Let me tell you that I start off with the premise that nuclear energy is not optimal; so I am not a nuclear-energy proponent."

Then last month in Miami, he told a largely Hispanic audience, "We'll assess the opportunities and risks of nuclear power in the hemisphere by sitting down with Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Chile." He called for a Department of Energy program to "share technology" with the countries.

Barron's energy columnist Jim McTague heard dueling statements and asked Obama's spokesman for a clarification. The response was, "I think you are reading too much into the speech." O-kay.

On Jerusalem: Obama told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last week that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and others protested, and the campaign issued a statement the next day that Obama "did not rule out Palestinian sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem."

Whatever. The ultimate disposition of Jerusalem should be up to the Israelis and Palestinians, with the United States serving coffee while they hash it out. But if Obama wants to stake a position, is it too much to ask that he hold it a week?

What does Obama really believe on these issues? Beats me.

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