The President’s Straight Talk on Jobs

September 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Assuming an unaccustomed feisty, combative and definitely not professorial demeanor, President Obama defied congressional Republicans not to pass the new stimulus package he presented to a joint session of Congress on Thursday night. Of course, Obama didn’t call it “stimulus.” He didn’t name the program that his supporters believe saved the economy from free fall, and his detractors insist didn’t work. Instead, he called his new plan the American Jobs Act, attempting to enlist public support by confronting unemployment, the primary concern of Americans. The purpose of the plan, he said, is “to put more people back to work and more money in the pockets of those who are working.” We know that the economic crisis perseveres because of the lack of demand, which in turn is related to the inability of the record numbers of unemployed to spend. (Consumer spending accounts for at least 60 percent of the economy.)

Over and over, the president exhorted Congress to “pass this jobs plan right away.” He reminded the Republicans that many of them, including 50 who are in Congress today, are on record for supporting many of the plan’s provisions. Obama offered tax-averse Republicans a stimulus plan that is 60 percent tax reduction — something they can’t refuse to endorse without being overtly hypocritical. He promised deficit-obsessed politicians that everything in the plan will be completely paid for, daring them once more to spurn needed revenue by refusing to let the Bush-era tax cuts expire. Obama will charge the congressional super committee on deficit reduction to add the cost of the new jobs program ($447 billion) to the $1 trillion in budget cuts they must identify by Christmas at the latest. Challenging also his liberal base, Obama defended modifications to Medicare and Medicaid to provide urgently needed funds.

The president was adamant, however, that he would not “let this economic crisis be used as an excuse to wipe out the basic protections that Americans have counted on for decades.” Obama rejects

the argument that says for the economy to grow, we have to roll back protections that ban hidden fees by credit card companies, or rules that keep our kids from being exposed to mercury, or laws that prevent the health insurance industry from shortchanging patients. I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy. We shouldn’t be in a race to the bottom, where we try to offer the cheapest labor and the worst pollution standards.

Speaking plainly for the benefit of his national audience and implicitly challenging Republicans to oppose him, Obama contended that we have to choose our priorities. We can relieve the wealthiest Americans of the responsibility to pay taxes or we can renovate schools and rehire laid-off teachers, but we can’t do both. We can keep the tax loopholes that allow the most profitable corporations in history to pay no taxes (or almost none), or we can give tax breaks to small businesses to encourage the hiring of the unemployed. We can’t do both. This isn’t political grandstanding or class warfare, the president said, anticipating his critics. “This is simple math.”

Obama bounced the Republicans’ rhetoric right back at them: “So for everyone who speaks so passionately about making life easier for ‘job creators’ [the Republican term for the wealthiest Americans], this plan is for you,” because “Everyone here knows that small businesses are where most new jobs begin.” He addressed Grover Norquist and the vast majority of Republicans who have signed his pledge — “I know that some of you have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone for as long as you live.” But, Obama said, the oath-takers will in effect raise middle-class taxes if they allow the tax cut passed earlier this year to expire. He implied that the Tea Party and other far-right conservatives who want to dismantle the government by defunding it are not the patriots they claim to be. They are instead un-American because they are invalidating American history: It is the government that was responsible for the national infrastructure of roads and rail, the education of its citizens, the funding of scientific research — all of which contributed to the development of the world’s greatest economy and unprecedented technological innovation.

As he has done before, Obama exploited his bully pulpit. He called on Americans who agree with him to make their views known to their representatives. He pledged to visit every corner of the country to promote his new jobs plan. His opponents will say that this is the opening salvo in his re-election campaign. Cynics believe that they don’t want the economy to improve because that will redound to Obama’s credit and strengthen his chances for re-election, thus defeating what many Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch O’Connell and presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann, have defined as their first priority: limiting Obama’s presidency to a single term.

It remains to be seen how much success the president will have in securing the passage of the American Jobs Act over Republican opposition. But if he pursues his goal with the same vigor and determination he demonstrated Thursday night, he may win over independents and disaffected Democrats who have abandoned him.


Debt-Ceiling Crisis Abated … for Now

August 3, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics

President Obama puts the finishing touches on his speech Tuesday. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

When the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011 finally became history, most Americans were extremely relieved to know that the United States would not have to default on its obligations. The armed forces at home and abroad, veterans, the poor, the disabled, the elderly and the millions of Americans on the federal payroll or contracted by the government will continue to receive their checks at least until the end of 2012.

Some of the other short-term winners are recipients of Social Security and Medicaid (but not Medicare); people who don’t want any change in the tax code; people who don’t think we should be the world’s policeman or expand the American Empire (the defense budget will take a big hit). President Obama and Democrats seeking re-election are the biggest winners. They will not have to defend a vote to raise the debt ceiling again before Election Day. This was, in fact, the major concession won by the Democrats.

Among the losers, the once-sacrosanct Department of Defense will be humbled: the Pentagon will sustain $350 billion in immediate cuts and a possible $600 billion more over the next 10 years. Infrastructure, research, clean energy, education — these are certainly losers. There will be little support for them. The jobless will lose extended unemployment benefits — $60 billion — as of Jan. 1.

The economy may be a loser as well, despite Moody’s announcement Tuesday that it would not downgrade the AAA credit rating of the United States. Keep in mind that the result of all the scheduled cuts is much less spending and investing in an already weak economy. The public sector lost 39,000 jobs in June alone. So far this year, almost 100,000 employees in local government have lost their jobs because of spending cuts. The cuts yet to be enacted as a result of the debt-ceiling deal will add still more people to the ranks of the unemployed. How will that reduce the deficit?

Our biggest problem is unemployment, not the public debt. A strong work force would make a big dent in the deficit. Far from attempting to solve the unemployment problem, the debt agreement exacerbates it. The economic recovery is faltering now because there isn’t enough consumer demand. Yet the debt-ceiling deal will result in still less demand as the government is forced to cut jobs and fire contractors. Demand previously created by government spending will wither away, and government liability will increase in the form of unemployment insurance, food stamps, etc. Added to the negative balance is the forfeited tax revenue that would have been collected if workers had not lost their jobs. Consequently, spending cuts may turn out to be counterproductive if they increase rather than reduce the deficit. Cynics say that Republicans may actually welcome a deeper and more prolonged recession because continued joblessness and a limping economy would work against the Democrats — and Obama in particular — in the next election.

No one is happy. The Tea Party isn’t satisfied with the savings projected by spending cuts they deem to be insufficient. Democrats bemoan the lack of revenue. As we know, in a compromise nobody gets what he wants. The best one can say is that the nation avoided default.

But what does that mean? When was the good faith and credit of the United States ever placed in doubt before? A domestic, self-inflicted crisis has eroded international faith in the dollar and tarnished America’s image.

The biggest loser, then, is American democracy. If there was any doubt before, now there is no question that the checks and balances written into the Constitution have been circumvented, rendering the legislative branch all but dysfunctional. The filibuster has a colorful history. Intended to protect the minority, its abuse makes a mockery of majority rule. In the last decade, the frequency of its use has soared. Now practically nothing can be passed in the Senate without a super-majority, rather than the simple majority dictated by the Constitution. The resolution of the debt-ceiling crisis set a precedent. From now on, the debt ceiling will be tied to spending cuts. A minority can coerce the majority into accepting its demands.

Grover Norquist, arguably one of the most powerful men in Washington (any Republican running for office must sign his no-new-tax pledge), said Monday:

[T]here is a new rule in town. The Boehner Rule: Any increase in the debt ceiling will require a reduction in federal spending by the same amount of the debt ceiling increase.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed that Monday:

McConnell promised that in the future the debt ceiling will be held hostage to Republican priorities:

[The debt ceiling debate] set the template for the future. In the future, Neil, no president—in the near future, maybe in the distant future—is going to be able to get the debt ceiling increased without a re-ignition of the same discussion of how do we cut spending and get America headed in the right direction. I expect the next president, whoever that is, is going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again in 2013, so we’ll be doing it all over.

When Somali pirates held Americans hostage two years ago in anticipation of receiving a grand ransom, the president countered with a swift, clean strike. Two years ago he knew better than to negotiate with terrorists for fear of emboldening them.

Debt Ceiling Update: Did Obama Sabotage Talks With GOP?

July 30, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics

Photo: Architect of the Capitol

As the epic conflict over the debt ceiling draws on, President Obama is besieged by denunciations from the right while fielding a blitz of disapproval from the angry left. The Democrats feel betrayed by his apparent willingness to sell the farm by agreeing to spending cuts demanded by Republicans to programs dear to Democrats. Obama has also been accused during the past week of being too removed from the fray after he and Speaker John Boehner reached an impasse, and negotiations over raising the debt ceiling moved to Congress.

Lawrence O’Donnnell, an MSNBC talk show host who has first-hand knowledge of how congressional negotiations work, rejects that idea. (He served as a key legislative aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan from 1989 to 1995.) O’Donnell believes the president has been very much involved — albeit behind the scenes — and is, in fact, orchestrating the entire drama. Unbeknownst to all the other players, theorizes O’Donnell, Obama never had any intention of agreeing to the cuts in Medicare and Social Security so painful to Democrats and so desired by Republicans. He may well have sabotaged the negotiation with Boehner to ensure the Republicans wouldn’t accept his offer. After the speaker had made the huge (for a Republican) concession of allowing $800 billion in tax increases, Obama called him and left a message asking for a 50 percent increase to $1.2 trillion in revenue. The president had to know that Boehner could never agree to such a large sum. (It is widely thought that Boehner walked out of his talks with the president because he knew he couldn’t sell the deal to his caucus.) Boehner was right — he couldn’t muster the votes to pass even the Republicans’ own plan. The president instead gained points with the public for being reasonable. He can now say he was willing to give, while the Republicans would only take. Of course, Obama also knew that his bluff would never be called, because his own party would have rejected the concessions he made.

We are now in the “stunt game” stage of the process, O’Donnell said on Thursday morning. On the other side of the aisle, the speaker is fully aware that the Democrats won’t accept the demands of the Tea Party faction of his members. He also knows that any Republican budget proposal will need Democratic votes to pass — but he didn’t expect to lack the necessary Republican votes. After 20 years in Congress, Boehner knows his way around Washington, so he also knows what to do to convince recalcitrant House members to vote for a distasteful bill.

Well, he thought he did. First he let the House pass the “Cut, Cap and Balance” bill (far more extreme than Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan, excoriated by Democrats), knowing it would die in the Senate. The speaker himself touted the virtues of the bill to gain credibility with the Tea Party. Boehner figured, O’Donnell believes, that that was the only way to convince the freshmen members of the futility of their demands and introduce them to the practical realities of a divided government. As Boehner had foreseen, Majority Leader Harry Reid immediately tabled “Cut, Cap and Balance,” essentially killing it. Boehner’s tactic should have been enough, and in previous years it would have been. But Boehner hadn’t reckoned with the extent of the freshmen’s intransigence and commitment to their pledges of shrinking the deficit exclusively with spending cuts.

The House majority fashioned another bill. It too, was rejected by the Senate. The Republicans wrote a third bill, but Boehner had to postpone the vote scheduled for Thursday afternoon, an implicit admission that the Republicans still weren’t able to agree among themselves. By Friday evening, Boehner had threatened or cajoled enough of his caucus to pass the bill. It squeaked by with a vote of 218-210, with no Democrats joining the slim majority. But to no avail: that bill too was quickly dismissed by the Senate.

The ball has landed in the Senate’s court. It was up to the Democratic majority to construct a bill that would be acceptable to the Republican-controlled House. On Saturday afternoon, however, the ball was forced out of bounds. Forty-three Republican senators wrote to Reid announcing they would not vote for the bill, meaning the legislation as it stands won’t make it out of the Senate. And the minority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said he would only negotiate with the president. Meanwhile, the House went ahead and voted on the Reid plan — even though the Senate has not — and rejected it by 173-246.

In the Senate, Reid is three votes short of the 60-vote super-majority insisted upon by the Republicans. The majority leader will have to either wheedle those votes from the Republican minority or convince them to vote with a simple majority. He does have one slim ray of hope: four Republican moderates didn’t sign the letter. One of them, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), said on Friday that he could vote on Reid’s plan as it stands.

With Tuesday’s sword of Damocles hanging over Congress and the nation, McConnell and Boehner held a news conference Saturday afternoon in which the Senate minority leader said that he believed the president was now fully engaged in the debate and that he believed a solution could be reached. “I’m confident and optimistic that we’re going to get an agreement in the very near future and resolve this crisis in the best interests of the American people,” McConnell said. Meanwhile, Reid and the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, were meeting with the president at the White House. After that meeting, Reid said the were no closer to a deal.

What got people at least talking again? No one has said specifically, but one theory has it that troops in Afghanistan may have jolted the politicians into action when they asked Adm. Mike Mullen if they would be paid if a deal isn’t reached on the debt ceiling. “I actually don’t know the answer to that question,” said Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He added: “I have confidence that at some point in time, whatever compensation you are owed, you will be given.”

Newsflash: Senate Votes Down Boehner’s Bill on Debt Ceiling

July 29, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics


Without a single Democratic vote, the Republican-controlled House passed on Friday night a bill offered by Speaker John Boehner to raise the debt ceiling in two stages, with the second stage of the increase contingent on passage of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. The vote was 218-210. But the Senate quickly voted, 59-41, to defeat the measure.

Even though Boehner’s bill was considered “dead on arrival” in the Senate, it was hoped in some quarters that it would open the way to negotiations on a Senate measure that could become the mechanism for raising the debt ceiling. The thought was that with some revisions a bill could be crafted that could be approved by the House, even if it did not have the support of Republicans aligned with the Tea Party Movement. But that hope came to an abrupt end.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said on MSNBC on Friday night that a solution in the Senate is by no means a sure thing. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has said that he will not negotiate with the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and that he will negotiate only with President Obama, according to Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. Further, McConnell has indicated that the Republicans intend to filibuster, which would push the earliest time the Senate could vote right up against the deadline of Aug. 2, the date that the United States is projected to go into default.

The Boehner plan, revised from an earlier proposal that failed to gain enough support for passage, calls for raising the debt limit by $900 billion and for cutting spending by $917 billion. That is projected take the government through February or March.

The second stage would authorize the president to raise the debt limit by an additional $1.6 trillion if a bipartisan committee of 12 lawmakers could identify $1.8 trillion in cuts before the end of the year and if Congress sends a balanced-budget amendment to the states for ratification.

D-Day Minus 6: Countdown to Default?

July 27, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics, World

CBS News

Six days before the United States will have insufficient funds to pay all its creditors, Republicans and Democrats have yet to reach an agreement on how to avoid default and obviate a momentous downgrade of the nation’s credit rating. Hanging on the outcome of the debt-ceiling crisis are interest rates on U.S. Treasury bonds and consequently, all loans; the salaries of millions of federal employees, including active-duty military; payments to the millions who depend on Social Security and Medicare — all these and more.

Republicans and Democrats have grown far apart in their visions for the country’s future and how to get there. As a result, the government is not merely divided; it is dysfunctional. The leaders of the two parties, President Obama and Speaker John Boehner, having reached an impasse in the negotiations, addressed the nation on Monday night to present their cases to the American people.

The differences between the two men wasn’t limited to their proposals — they also differed sharply in tone. The president was on a charm offensive and Boehner was combative. Obama credited Boehner with putting politics aside to work alongside him and admitted that “neither party is blameless.” Boehner credited Obama with creating “the ‘crisis’ atmosphere.” He characterized the Democrats’ “balanced approach” as “we spend more . . . you pay more.” (Nancy Pelosi later said about the difference between the budget proposals, “We get the sacrifice, they get the wealth.”)

Obama and Boehner had different audiences. In addition to influencing voters, Obama was trying to calm the fears of governments and individuals worldwide who are invested in U.S. Treasury bonds. Boehner’s task was more difficult. He had to speak to both the moderates and the radicals in a divided Republican caucus, the seasoned legislators and the newly arrived freshmen who have yet to learn the art of governing. To appease these radicals, Boehner used fiery rhetoric and twisted the truth somewhat out of shape. The high unemployment rate, he said, was largely a result of the Democrats’ “spending binge.” He called the vote on the Republican Cut, Cap and Balance Act bipartisan, even though only five of the 186 Democrats in the House joined 229 Republicans in voting for the measure.

The president wound up his talk with an appeal to citizens to call their representatives in Congress and let them know what they wanted. The congressional switchboards were shut down by the ensuing deluge of calls.

Boehner’s position and his political future may well depend on his ability to reconcile two mutually exclusive aims. He has to craft a bill that will be acceptable to Democrats and also have it approved by the many in his caucus who don’t want to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances. On Tuesday, Boehner was faced with the certainty that he didn’t have enough Republican votes to pass his budget proposal. Later in the day he was hit with bad news from the Congressional Budget Office: his plan as written missed a key Republican goal — to cut spending by a greater amount than the new debt ceiling. Instead of saving $1.2 trillion in 10 years through spending cuts as predicted, Boehner’s plan would save only $850 billion. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s plan saved more than the Republican plan, even though it didn’t save as much as advertised. Boehner had to postpone the vote he had scheduled in the House until a quickly rewritten plan could be ready.

On Wednesday, the threat of a downgraded credit rating receded when Standard & Poor’s president revealed he thought it unlikely that the United States would default on its debt. The financial markets, however, registered their dismay at the inability of Congress to approve the debt ceiling and avoid default. All the indices closed sharply down from the day before.

Yet the threat of default is a manufactured, self-inflicted crisis that can be resolved immediately with a bill containing a single line authorizing an increase in the debt ceiling. The debt limit itself is superfluous. It has nothing to do with the deficit or future expenses incurred by future programs. The deficit exists because Congress created it by enacting programs that must be paid for. In that sense, the debt limit has already been set. It applies to money that is already spent in the same way a consumer incurs debt by charging purchases to his credit card with the understanding that he will pay for them at a later date. The bank that issues the credit card sets the consumer’s debt limit for current and future purchases. It can’t set a retroactive limit, which is akin to what the Republicans are attempting to do.

James Surowiecki notes that the debt ceiling places Obama in a paradoxical bind: If the debt limit isn’t raised, the president will have to either cut back or eliminate programs authorized by Congress, i.e., he will unconstitutionally override Congress. And if he spends the money that is already authorized, he will violate the debt ceiling law.

The debt limit has nothing to do with the deficit, which is the negative difference between the government’s revenue and the money it is already committed to pay. Linking the two is a political ploy. The Republicans know that avoiding default matters more to the Democrats. A default would wreak havoc on the economy and thereby jeopardize Obama’s and many Democrats’ chances for re-election. Obama wants to raise the ceiling enough to ensure the government will be financed past the 2012 elections. The Republicans want to raise it only enough to last until early next year, so that another conflict like the current one will consume the Democrats during the election season.

Except for that major difference, the two plans have a lot in common. Neither calls for an increase in revenue, a key demand of the Democrats until now. The Boehner plan as outlined before it was withdrawn late Tuesday had two phases. In the first phase the debt limit would be increased to $1 trillion and spending would be cut by $1.2 trillion, actually $850 billion as scored by the CBO. Future spending would be capped. In addition, it would require Congress to vote on a balanced budget amendment. In the second phase a bipartisan committee would have to find an additional $1.8 trillion in savings, for a two-phase total of $3 trillion. Only then could the debt limit be raised to $1.6 trillion. The Reid plan proposed to cut spending by $2.7 trillion (but $2.2 trillion per the CBO). All projections are for a 10-year period.

By late Wednesday, the two sides seemed to be if not coming together, at least cautiously approaching. Both worked on refining the numbers in accordance with the CBO estimates, and Boehner sharply warned his caucus in the House that they had to pass the bill in its final form. “I think we’re going to solve this,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).

It is by no means certain. But difficult to contemplate that we might not.

Clock Is Ticking Down With No Debt-Ceiling Accord

July 23, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics

“We have now run out of time,” the president declared on Friday.

Up to now, the financial markets have remained remarkably sanguine, sharing the widely-held assumption that for the United States to default on its debt is unthinkable. After all, U.S. Treasury bonds are the safest investment in the world — so much so that every major financial institution worldwide holds Treasuries as rock-solid insurance. But now, with the Aug. 2 deadline only 10 days away, negotiations stalled and no hint of compromise, the unthinkable is becoming real.

On Friday afternoon, Speaker John Boehner announced he could no longer negotiate with the president. “The White House is simply not serious,” he said. “In the end, we couldn’t connect — not because of different personalities, because of different visions for our country.” Those visions consist essentially in the Democrats’ reliance on the ability of government to protect the general welfare and especially the poor, the sick and the elderly, versus the Republicans’ conviction that the prosperity and the salvation of the country lie in a marketplace unencumbered by taxes or regulations.

Boehner left Obama “standing at the altar,” as the president said at the press conference he hastily called in response. Obama made clear his anger and frustration: “Can the Republicans say ‘yes’ to anything?” Their talks foundered, it seems, on the issue of revenue — taxes — yet again. Still, Obama knows that throwing in the towel is not an option, as does Boehner, who returned to Congress in an attempt to reach a deal. The president summoned the congressional leaders to the White House for an emergency meeting Saturday morning. That meeting lasted less than an hour. The president, aware of a warning from credit-rating agencies that the AAA rating of the United States will be downgraded unless the debt ceiling is raised in time to prevent a default, sent the leaders back to their members to find a way forward. He stands firm in his opposition to a short-term solution that would plunge the nation back into crisis within months.

The clock, as they say, is ticking, and many think that unless a deal is reached by Sunday, the markets will start to react on Monday, setting in motion a financial crisis that may be unstoppable.

The kabuki playing in Washington — the charges and countercharges, the refusals to continue negotiating, the crafting and dismissing of one unrealistic plan after another to resolve the debt-ceiling crisis — is grand farce for the disinterested bystander, if such exists. But this political theater may be a tragedy. There is no one who doesn’t have a stake in the success of the effort to raise the debt ceiling, because default will affect every single American.

Analysts are in agreement that financial markets will plummet, instantly wiping out trillions of dollars in assets worldwide. Interest rates will spike, thereby increasing the deficit, because the Treasury will owe much more in interest payments. The cost of most kinds of debt will rise: mortgages, personal and business loans, credit card debt, auto loans, hospital and municipal bonds. Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have been discussing contingency plans, debating which payments will be made and what parts of government will have to shut down. If interest on the debt is paid and checks go out to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, and the troops are supplied, there will be nothing left for anything else. Homeland Security, the FBI, air traffic controllers, airport security staff, the Pentagon — in short, every other part of the government will shut down on Aug. 3. Millions of people will be instantly thrown out of work. We would see an economic and social cataclysm considerably worse than the Great Depression. It is not an exaggeration to say that the fate of the world is precariously perched on the shoulders of a few intransigent members of Congress.

Debt-Ceiling Deal Appears Closer to Becoming Reality

July 20, 2011 by  
Filed under Politics

The debt-ceiling Armageddon being fought in Washington has never been chiefly about money. Because everyone except the most extreme members of the Tea Party Movement knows that the debt limit must be raised, Republicans are holding it hostage to exact acceptance of their conservative agenda. They know that the Democrats controlling the presidency and the Senate will never agree to scale back Social Security and other social programs. All but a very few Republicans are inexorably opposed to any tax increase, including the closing of loopholes that would result in higher taxes for individuals or corporations. Seizing the opportunity offered by the moment, they would force far-reaching cuts in public programs as the price of preventing the United States from defaulting on its debts.

Driving the conservative agenda is the determination to shrink the size of government by “starving the beast” — defunding it by steadily lowering taxes — a theory adopted by Republicans in the 1970s. The assumption was that the decreased revenue would compel cutbacks in spending, especially on the social network programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) enacted by Democrats. Republicans wanted to prune those programs drastically or, ideally, eliminate them entirely.

Despite the demonstrated failure of “starving the beast,” today’s Republicans are still set on the same objectives. In the debt-ceiling negotiations they have insisted on both spending and tax cuts. President Obama offered them a deal that reportedly would have cut the deficit by $4 trillion in 10 years, raised the eligibility age for Medicare and cut Social Security benefits by switching to the chained-CPI. But Republicans refused to consider it, because the package also included a tax-reform provision and would have let the Bush-era tax cuts expire in 2012. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, knew that the president’s plan would force Republicans to “either sign onto a bad deal that raises taxes or go into default and allow us to have co-ownership of a bad economy.”

Not surprisingly, throughout this white-knuckle debate, rivalries, political maneuvering and not-so-hidden agendas have been simmering barely below the surface. Obama may have been “pulling an anti-Corleone, making Republicans an offer they can’t accept,” wrote Paul Krugman. Obama’s goal in putting Medicare and Social Security on the table may have been “to paint the G.O.P. into a corner, making Republicans look like intransigent extremists.” The president has been portraying himself as the only adult in the room, and polls confirm that Americans accept that view. Gambling that the Republicans wouldn’t accept his $4 trillion deal, Obama could safely earn points for offering to sacrifice the sacred cows of the Democrats.

Now that the noose is starting to tighten as Aug. 2 is less than two weeks away, Republican leaders realize that the time for posturing and grandstanding is over. But how to renege on their pledge not to raise the debt ceiling without severe spending cuts, particularly in the social programs, and with nary a tax increase? Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) admits they are in a tight bind. “Our problem is, we made a big deal about this for three months,” he said. “How many Republicans have been on TV saying, ‘I am not going to raise the debt limit’?” Graham asked, admitting he had been one of those. “We have no one to blame but ourselves.”

McConnell has made very clear that his “single most important political goal … is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” McConnell made no bones about his motivation in designing a fallback plan that would be electoral poison for Democrats — his proposal allows them to raise the debt ceiling, but in three installments and with no Republican votes. “I refuse to help Barack Obama get re-elected by marching Republicans into a position where we have co-ownership of a bad economy,” said McConnell. Of course, Democrats in swing or conservative districts who voted three times before the election in favor of raising the debt limit without guaranteed spending cuts would have a scant chance of being re-elected.

Eric Cantor (R-Va.) appears to be challenging the position of John Boehner (R-Ohio) as top dog in the House. Cantor speaks for the House Republicans who have vowed not to raise taxes under any condition. Boehner instead accepts that some agreement must be reached, because not raising the debt ceiling “would be a financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy.”

There is also a discernible rift between the Republican leaders and the rank and file. Speaker Boehner had indicated he could cut a deal with the president — one that would of necessity involve some “revenue” or tax increase — but he was forced to back down because he didn’t have the votes. At least 60 members of his caucus, he said, “won’t vote to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances.” Neither Boehner nor McConnell are in favor of increasing taxes, a component of any deal Obama and the Democrats would approve, but they understand the imperative of maintaining the “full faith and credit” of the United States.

The most committed (or intransigent, take your pick) Tea Party Republicans, however, believe the predictions of financial collapse and global calamity are overblown. Last week presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said that default “is a misnomer that I believe that the president and the Treasury secretary have been trying to pass off on the American people, and it’s this: That if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion, that somehow the United States will go into default and we will lose the full faith and credit of the United States. That is simply not true.”

Supporters of the Tea Party Movement, like Bachmann, don’t fear the specter of default. They believe it could work in their favor, because if the Treasury hasn’t the money to both pay its creditors and meet its domestic obligations, it will have no choice but to reduce spending — the primary Tea Party goal.

In addition to the intricate choreography played out by the various players, the leads and the chorus, we are also witnessing what would be a farce, were the stakes not so high. Rome burns and Nero fiddles. On Tuesday the House spent the day debating then voting on a plan that everyone knew could never vault the Senate’s Democratic phalanx. The Republican passage of “Cut, Cap and Balance” was intended to reassure their constituents. It mandates drastic cuts — more than $100 billion in 2012, a future spending cap of 18 percent of the total economy (a level not seen since the 1960s) and a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, which would effectively rule out any tax increases ever. The object of the exercise was to provide political cover for the Republicans who would have to vote to increase the debt limit.

At the same time, word spread that what had been a moribund bipartisan budget plan in the Senate had roared back to life. Like Obama’s rejected plan, it would reduce deficits by $4 trillion in the next decade. It also includes steep cuts in spending and new revenues from tax-code reform. The president embraced it, and 49 senators on both sides of the aisle look on it favorably. The financial markets signaled their relief that the debt-limit crisis has a resolution in sight with a strong rally.

The single cloud on the horizon is an ominous thunderhead. Will the Tea Party members of the House sign off on a plan that violates their stated deepest convictions?

Debt-Ceiling Debate: Anxiety Grows as Solution Remains Elusive

July 14, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics

CBS News

Americans are watching an extreme and dangerous game of chicken played out among the most powerful of our elected officials. Who will blink first? Who will win? And what will it mean, if anything, to the ordinary citizen? Fanned by the media,
the uncertainty of the outcome of this
battle of wills is ratcheting up the anxiety
of the public to an almost unbearable level. According to all but the most extreme conservatives, we are perched at the
edge of a precipice, and if we fall into
the abyss, there’s no telling what all the consequences will be. It is certain, however, that every American will be adversely affected.

What is this contest about? The by now notorious debt ceiling is a dollar figure set by Congress, the amount of money the federal government may borrow in order to meet its fiduciary obligations. These fall into two categories. The public debt is the principal and interest owed to individuals and governments that have bought U.S. Treasury bonds. The other is the money the federal government has borrowed from the trust funds of federal programs, principally Social Security and Medicare. In a sense, Congress raises the limit each time it passes a spending bill or a tax cut without corresponding reductions in spending somewhere else.

We have a problem of both spending and income (from taxes). In 2001, federal revenue was 19.5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, and we spent 18.2 percent of GDP. Since we took in more money than we spent, we had a surplus. But in 2011, the Congressional Budget Office estimates (assuming there are no major changes in fiscal policy) that we will take in only 14.8 percent of GDP, while we’ll spend 24.1 percent. That’s the deficit. In other words, for every dollar we spend today, we have to borrow 40 cents.

On May 16, the current limit of $14.294 trillion was reached. The Treasury has temporized and avoided default by deploying such extraordinary measures as suspending investments in federal retirement funds. But these expedients will carry us just so far — until Aug. 2.

Since the money authorized by the debt ceiling has already been spent, the debate over whether to increase the limit is in effect about a simple choice: will the U.S. government honor its commitments or stiff its creditors? The government writes 80 million checks each month, 55 million to retirees and the disabled on Social Security, as President Obama pointed out. These are real people, many of whom depend on the checks to buy food.

For months, the conservative majority has insisted that it will not vote to raise the debt ceiling without drastic cuts in spending, including fundamental changes in the social safety net, and no increase in revenue through change or reform in the tax code. For their part, Democrats have refused to touch Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, arguing that it is more equitable to let the tax cuts enacted in President George W. Bush’s administration expire. That would mean the wealthiest Americans — that top 1 percent that earns 20 percent of all the income earned in the United States — would contribute more, and those far less fortunate than they wouldn’t forfeit what would be a much larger percentage of their income. The Republicans counter that any increase in taxes on the wealthy and businesses will discourage investment and thus hamper job creation.

The debt ceiling has become hostage to these starkly different perspectives. The unshakable Republican opposition to the debt limit increase — historically a non-issue — is unprecedented: The debt ceiling has been raised 74 times since 1962. Five of the last 10 increases were passed by Republican majorities, all of which included the leaders of today’s opposition, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Eric Cantor (R-Va). Even the current budget, which depends on raising the debt ceiling, was approved by Republicans.

CBS News

If Republicans and Democrats fail to resolve their differences, warned Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on July 13, the country would face a “huge financial calamity.” Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner predicted that the closer we get to the deadline, the more risk and uncertainty will rile the markets.

In fact, the deadline may well be before Aug. 2. On July 13, Moody’s Investors Service put the U.S. credit rating under review for possible downgrade, a reminder, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) observed, that the deadline for these negotiations is “whenever the credit markets decide it is.” Schumer also noted, “The irreversible consequences of a potential rating downgrade could occur ahead of an actual default.” And so it was. Bloomberg reported that in Asia, Moody’s threat to lower the U.S. credit rating depressed the U.S. dollar. It hit a new low against the yen and suffered a steep loss against the euro.

If the U.S. bonds lose their AAA grade, the damage won’t stop there. Moody’s said that at least 7,000 top-rated municipal credits would also be downgraded and there would be an “automatic” downgrade affecting $130 billion in municipal debt, Bloomberg reported. Furthermore, “top-rated securities with no direct links to the national government” and municipal debt including mortgage-backed bonds would also be affected.

“If the U.S. credit is downgraded,” Geithner said Sunday on the NBC News program “Meet the Press,” there will be “catastrophic damage” not just to the American economy but to the global economy as well.

And in the worst-case scenario — no agreement by Aug. 2— the Treasury will have to choose between defaulting on its creditors or holding back Social Security and other government payments. Furthermore, wrote Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor,

… a legal cloud would hang over any newly issued bonds, because of the risk that the government might refuse to honor those debts as legitimate. This risk, in turn, would result in a steep increase in interest rates because investors would lose confidence — a fiscal disaster that would cost the nation tens of billions of dollars.

No one really knows all the consequences of a default. Many believe that our bond and stock markets would crash. If the government has no money left for federal agencies and programs after meeting its principal and interest payments (which would take precedence), then it would have to shut down. Anyone who has followed the government shutdown in Minnesota will begin to have an idea of what the implications of such a closure would be.

If we were to pay interest (which comes first) and the social safety net (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps), Jay Powell of the BiPartisan Policy Center told NPR,

we wouldn’t have a single dollar for defense, including active-duty military pay, including the whole Pentagon, and all payments to creditors in the defense area. You couldn’t keep the Justice Department. We wouldn’t have one dollar for the FBI, for the courts, for the prisons. And it goes on and on. The Education Department would be closed and many, many other Cabinet departments. So however you move the chess pieces around here, you lose.

In the meantime, we’ll have to keep biting our nails while we wait for the recalcitrant children in Washington to stop playing with a very dangerous fire and act like the responsible adults we expect to inhabit the seats of power.

Is Veto Pen the Strongest Campaign Weapon for North Carolina’s Democratic Governor?

July 7, 2011 by  
Filed under Careers, Politics

Not too long ago, Gov. Bev Perdue was a North Carolina afterthought. Though she had served in the state House and Senate and as lieutenant governor, many considered it lucky that the “D” beside her name carried extra weight in 2008, the year Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976 to carry the state. (Yes, Obama won by just 14,000 votes, but early, straight party-line ballots carriedvet the day and helped Perdue win a closely contested race.)

With the approach of 2012 when she will be up for re-election, political predictions have not foreseen that her  luck would hold. Obama’s popularity in the state dipped as the transition from a manufacturing to a high-tech job base made economic recovery slow. It never helped that her predecessor, Democrat Mike Easley, had at the end of his term become entangled in legal controversies and a federal investigation into campaign finance irregularities that ended with a plea deal.

The first woman elected to the office, the 64-year-old Perdue found her leadership skills questioned. Her poll numbers were dismal, and in the 2010 midterm elections the North Carolina Legislature was returned to Republican control for the first time in more than a century.

All the while, waiting in the wings was her 2008 GOP opponent, longtime Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, itching for a rematch.  When I interviewed him after the 2008 loss, McCrory seemed particularly rankled that he lost his home county. (The night before the election, Obama made a last stop at a rally at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, “the campus I supported,” McCrory told me then.) Since then, he has tacked to the right and gone on the attack.

Backed up against the wall, Perdue – in actions that may not fit the stereotype of the “female politician” as mediator — found a voice in opposition, with several vetoes, including key ones of a budget plan, voter ID legislation and a restrictive abortion bill.

On June 12, she vetoed a $19.7 billion budget plan that she said would result in “generational damage,” especially when it came to cuts in education. Republicans said the plan, which lets a 1-cent temporary sales tax expire and cuts more than $100 million from the state education budget, was fiscally responsible and joined with a few Democrats to override Perdue’s veto three days later. But the fight energized teachers who protested in Raleigh, the state capital.

On June 23, Perdue vetoed a bill that would require voters to present a government-issued photo ID, saying in a statement: “This bill, as written, will unnecessarily and unfairly disenfranchise many eligible and legitimate voters.” Such bills have been criticized as an overreaction to a nonexistent problem and an unfair burden to minorities, the poor and the elderly. But North Carolina’s speaker of the House, Thom Tillis, disagreed in a statement: “An overwhelming majority of our citizens have continued to support this bill, knowing that it would provide confidence in voting and protect against potential voter fraud.” He wants voters to encourage Democratic legislators to switch sides for an override.

That veto earned Perdue a place in Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s June 29 statement of support for Democratic governors who have so far vetoed voter ID bills passed by GOP legislatures. (Commended alongside Perdue were Govs. John Lynch of New Hampshire, Jay Nixon of Missouri, Brian Schweitzer of Montana and Mark Dayton of Minnesota.)

On June 27, Perdue vetoed the Woman’s Right to Know Act that would have required women seeking abortions to wait 24 hours after state-mandated counseling and to undergo ultrasounds. Women would be provided information on abortion alternatives and the development of a fetus. Perdue framed her opposition as a medical issue, saying the bill would interfere with doctor-patient relationships, raising the ire of the bill’s supporters and Catholic groups but gaining support from such groups as NARAL Pro Choice North Carolina and Planned Parenthood. A one-vote shift in each chamber of the General Assembly is needed for an override.

On June 30, the deadline for action on legislation, Perdue vetoed a bill limiting environmental regulation and paving the way for offshore drilling. She said the bill, which directed the governor to form an offshore-energy compact with South Carolina and Virginia, would infringe on the office’s constitutional rights. Perdue also vetoed bills that would change the laws on unemployment benefits and require new rules for Medicaid and Health Choice providers.

In all, Perdue vetoed a record 15 bills this year.

While Republicans criticize Perdue’s use of the veto pen, lukewarm Democrats have started to wake up. Though the governor’s poll numbers are still lackluster, they are more positive than they were just a few months ago.

According to Public Policy Polling (PPP), a respected Raleigh-based, Democratic Party-affiliated firm, Perdue’s approval rating rose from 30 percent to 36 percent from March to June. In a hypothetical rematch with McCrory, she is down by just 6 points.

As McCrory has moved to the right, he has shored up his support from the Republican base but lost some Independents, while Perdue still is not up to her 2008 numbers among the Democratic base.

“McCrory has pretty fully embraced the new Republican legislative majority even as independents have turned sharply against it and Democrats have been re-energized by it, and he’s paying a political price for that embrace with declining poll numbers,” a PPP blog said on June 15. “McCrory’s probably still the favorite next year but his election as governor is looking a lot less inevitable than it did at the start of the year.”

Of course, November 2012 is still a long way off, and the president’s fortunes might have as big an impact as they did in 2008 in deciding Perdue’s fate. Will the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte resonate in Raleigh and throughout the state? Will North Carolina voters judge Perdue’s veto pen as due diligence, as she would like, or “overeager,” as state GOP leaders believe.

What’s sure is that in saying “no,” Gov. Bev Perdue has raised her voice.

Bin Laden Is Dead but the Moral Questions Remain

May 24, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics

After announcing that Osama bin Laden had been killed by a team of commandos, President Obama declared, “Justice has been done.”

But not everyone — delighted and relieved as they may have been that bin Laden could no longer rain terror down on an anxious world — was convinced that the manner and circumstances of his death were just. There’s been a lot of discussion about the legality of shooting bin Laden without benefit of a trial.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees that justice will be meted out after the accused — no matter how heinous his crime — has been found guilty in a court of law. Since 9/11 we have been debating whether terrorists are criminals (to be tried in civil court) or military combatants (to be tried in military tribunals). In either case, we are (mostly) agreed that they should be tried, not summarily executed. This respect for the rule of law is quintessentially American. It defines who we are. Or who we were.

In the last decade the rules have changed and so have the laws. To defend ourselves in an endless war against a faceless enemy, we have abandoned principles long held dear and engaged in practices our parents and grandparents wouldn’t recognize. To be sure, we were never perfect — the My Lai massacre comes to mind — but until now, no one justified torture or prettied it up as Orwellian “enhanced interrogation.” We had no “rendition” — the shipping of prisoners off to “black sites,” overseas dungeons in places that have no inconvenient laws that forbid torture and protect the rights of prisoners.

The captives at Guantánamo are not the only ones stripped of their rights. We, the American public, have forfeited our privacy and surrendered the sanctity of our homes by authorizing the government to eavesdrop on every telephone call, scan every email and search private records and property, all without the owner’s knowledge or consent. It’s useful to remember, however, that without a vast electronic net of surveillance and before the government was empowered with unprecedented authority, the signals of the impending 9/11 attack were received, noted and dismissed.

When I heard President Obama say that bin Laden had been killed, I reacted with satisfaction, relief and an atavistic sense of joy. I don’t normally rejoice in someone’s death and I oppose the death penalty. But I don’t doubt that the man who devised such atrocious ways to maximize fear, suffering and death deserved retribution — in fact, I believe he should have experienced some of what he imposed on his victims. In complete defiance of my principles, I was always convinced that bin Laden should never be captured and brought to the United States because of the reprisals — kidnappings, beheadings, suicide bombings — that would surely ensue to obtain his release. Though deprived of a martyr’s tomb, bin Laden continues to menace from his watery grave on the posthumous audiotape released by Al Qaeda.

And still . . .

If we make an exception for bin Laden, if we cross that line, Glenn Greenwald asks, where do we stop? Why not Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of 9/11? What about Al Qaeda’s second- and third-in-command?

We may all agree that the death of bin Laden was long overdue and the entire world is immeasurably better off without him, but Greenwald reminds us that high-ranking Nazis — in the same class as bin Laden, I would argue — were tried at Nuremberg. Greenwald cites the opening statement of lead prosecutor Robert Jackson:

That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.

There is however a difference. Though we were stung with injury, we weren’t flushed with victory. The world has changed much in 65 years: our enemies no longer wear uniforms, and they use any means to attack us anywhere. They operate with no holds barred.

So, was the killing legal?

“It is one thing to argue that capture and trial would have been preferable, another entirely to argue that the killing was illegal,” writes Adam Serwer.

A trial is necessary, says Michael Moore, to establish “a very public and permanent historic record of the crimes against humanity,” a record to teach our grandchildren “so that they would never forget these horrors and how they were committed.”

Andrew Sullivan takes another tack, asserting that “we are morally permitted to defend ourselves with violence” against someone “who has orchestrated the mass killing of thousands [and] has declared war on us.” Robert Chesney and Juan Cole agree — the SEALs’ raid was in keeping with the U.N. Charter, which recognizes the right of a state to defend itself from attack.

“Violence can be a form of justice, and justice occasionally requires acts of violence,” concurs Thomas Nachbar, though, he insists, the two should never be confused:

Why bother making the distinction? Because we can act according to our principles only if we can think clearly about them, and we can think clearly about them only if we talk clearly about them. And our principles — those worth fighting and dying for — are what separate us from the likes of Osama bin Laden, not the ability to kill people thousands of miles away.

Maintaining that bin Laden was lawfully killed, Sullivan draws a clear line “between an enemy at large where he can still inflict casualties and an enemy already detained, where he cannot. … the ability to make distinctions is what makes a civilization in a fallen world, where evil endures and also seduces.”

Has Al Qaeda seduced us into believing that torture and assassination are justifiable? Democracy is precious, but it is also fragile. If to protect ourselves we must voluntarily relinquish the rights we fought to establish and preserve, has Al Qaeda won? Has it seduced us into believing that we can be safe only in a police state that monitors our movements, records and words with ubiquitous hidden eyes and ears? Does anyone believe that the National Security Agency will ever cut back its electronic surveillance or dismantle the vast structures that store the data culled from every aspect of our lives? It’s a slippery slope.

President George W. Bush declared two American citizens “enemy combatants,” thereby justifying their detention in military prison without being charged or given access to an attorney in violation of the constitutional guarantees of habeas corpus and a speedy and public trial. Will more American citizens be “disappeared”?

I don’t know the answer to this existential dilemma — whether to be safer at the cost of renouncing certain rights and a measure of freedom or to preserve our open society at the risk of missing signs of an impending attack. For now, however, we need to be very clear about the choices we are making and consider how they change a way of life we can no longer take for granted.

The Death of Osama Bin Laden: Echoes of Pete Seeger

May 3, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics

Before the world knew about the killing of Osama bin Laden, I was listening to Pete Seeger, whose music I hadn’t heard for a long while. The last song was “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil rights movement. It always brings tears to my eyes—it reminds me that in the midst of hatred and strife, many whites and blacks linked hands and marched together unafraid, united by a common dream for a better America.

Fast forward a few hours to the president’s calm address to the nation and the world in which he reported that a crack team of Navy Seals had taken down Bin Laden. The successful, 40-minute operation culminated two years of patient and painstaking work by surprising and assassinating the most hunted man on the planet. His killing resulted in unfettered celebration throughout the United States as we finally closed the bloody and horrific chapter written almost 10 years ago on the infamous 9/11. The War Against Terror will doubtless continue, but Bin Laden’s acolytes will be forced to contemplate the ferocity of the lion they thought they’d defanged.

Contemplating President Obama’s announcement, “We Shall Overcome” began to play in my mind, and I realized how appropriate it is today. It’s no accident that “Yes, we can!” and “We Shall Overcome” have the same meaning: they both convey the will to struggle in the face of formidable opposition and a faith in ultimate triumph. Both advocate unity within diversity.

The solidarity freedom fighters felt as they braved beatings while they strove to change minds and laws in the ’60s surged in the aftermath of 9/11 when we felt close to every stranger in the street, the enormity of our shared tragedy bonding us together as never before. for many of us, the jubilation and the dancing in the streets right after Obama’s victory in the 2008 election—I know, it’s hard to believe today—and the spontaneous celebrations that erupted last night, when the president confirmed the rumor that Bin Laden was dead, issued from the same deeply felt place.

Ground Zero, May 1, 2011. (Image: DNA

The frustration of the fruitless, decade-long manhunt dissolved as we learned of the daring exploit. The long-awaited news of the death of the man who shattered our sense of invulnerability and drove us to ruinous wars unites us and revives our flagging faith in America’s greatness.


“We Shall Overcome” also resonates with Obama’s presidency. After doubts raised in the presidential campaign about his experience, complaints about his detachment, dissatisfaction with the progress and expansion of the never-ending war, the nation had accepted on some level that Bin Laden would never be brought to justice because of his skill in eluding us. At least for today, Obama is being congratulated by some of his most ardent critics. Republicans and birthers acknowledge the significance of this hard-won achievement. What seemed like the president’s aloof detachment has proved to be a screen that veiled his intense concentration on locating America’s archenemy since the first days of his presidency and his dogged determination to annihilate Bin Laden and his organization.

The president has persevered in the face of spiteful and malicious backbiting. Obama has had to subdue and hide the angry feelings that must have welled up in response— was “We Shall Overcome” playing in the back of his mind? Occasionally he is given the opportunity to strike back in a non-threatening way— viz. the joking banter, albeit not too subtle, with which he lampooned the festering annoyances of Donald Trump and the birthers at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

And since the motivation underlying the attempts to deprive him of legitimacy is said by some, including Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar of The View, to reside in racist outrage at seeing a black man occupy the White House, the resonance of “We Shall Overcome” and its association with the civil rights movement that made Obama’s presidency possible is for me inescapable.

WVFC Special Report: Inside inaugurational Washington

January 19, 2009 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics

(Editor’s Note: As Inauguration Day approaches it all looks exciting on TV, but how is it for those of us who live in Washington?To give us a glimpse, a special email from a systems analyst and FOW — Friend of WVFC — lets us know below. Her name and employer have been anonymized for perhaps-obvious reasons. — Ed.)

My office downtown is at 18th and E Streets in the District of Columbia. D street is a corridor towards the entrance gate of the white house and E street is an exit corridor from the white house. The “VP caravan” goes there most mornings around 7:20.

Most of us who work downtown get used to the mini-parades of motorcycle cops and black suburbans.  They drive around and we ignore them.  If someone really important goes by, the bicycle cops show up first to close the roads. Then the uniformed officers in the police cars. Finally the caravan flies by. People downtown tend to scurry across the street when they see the bicycle cops madly pedalling into position, because if you don’t move fast, they’ll close the street and no one wants to get stuck standing for 10 minutes, especially if it is for Cheney. The President has more motorcycle cops, and also a Suburban with a camera operator filming the entire time.


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WVFC Q&A: Deborah Willis on “Obama: The Campaign in Photographs”

December 17, 2008 by  
Filed under Books, Newsmakers, Politics

Deb Willis On Friday, WVFC readers in Philadelphia (or willing to travel there) can meet noted boomer photographer  Deborah Willis, who will be signing copies of her new book  Obama: The Historic Campaign in Photographs at 5:30 p.m. at the  African-American Museum of Philadelphia (7th and Race Streets). Willis,  Professor of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts, has long been equally famous as a world-class photographer and as curator of other important images of and by African-Americans. Her books include Family History Memory: Recording African-American Life; Reflections in Black: A History of African-American Photography;  A Small Nation of People: W. E.B. DuBois; and African American Portraits of Progress.

Willis spoke with WVFC editor Chris Lombardi a few weeks ago about the book; about men, women and photography, and about how something as seemingly ephemeral as a political campaign fits into the greater history she has spent her life lifting to air.

As a photographer, you’ve been a Visiting Artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College, Light Works, and the Rhode Island School of Design. Yet your renown comes equally from your work as a national collector and interpreter of African-American photography. What came first?

I began my worked as a photographer and began curating at the same time, in the late 1970’s. I had to. There was such a lack of African-American images in the greater world, in exhibition. So the trajectory started at the same moment. It was like the title of that August Wilson play: two trains running at the same time.

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Change in the work force – and for all of us.

Hemmerdinger by Elizabeth Hemmerdinger

The road to economic recovery is going to be rocky – and apparently built mostly by men.   Linda R. Hirshman, author of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, brings something pretty scary to our attention in last week’s op-ed piece “Where Are the New Jobs for Women?”  “The bulk of the stimulus program [announced by President-elect Barack Obama] will provide jobs for men,” writes Hirschman, “because building projects generate jobs in construction, where women make up only 9 percent of the work force.”  We can hope that this fact is merely a momentary oversight on the part of the incoming administration. After all, almost half of the American work force is women. Overlooking the necessity of putting women back to work, even as an accidental consequence of the developing stimulus program, is untenable. Clearly, some women choose not to build roads. Those who want to, ought to get trained. For all we know, more women would do construction work if they could get the training, if, for instance, the unions weren’t essentially closed shops.

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Mother-Daughter Post-Election Special, Part One: What It Felt Like in Grant Park

November 18, 2008 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics

Two weeks after Election Day, WVFC is pleased to present a pair of perspectives on this paradigm-shifting election, from baby boomer and WVFC advisory board member Dr. Cecilia Ford and her daughter, 25-yea-old guest blogger Kate White. First, White describes the scene in Chicago's Grant Park on November 4;  tomorrow, Dr. Ford will weigh in on some of the complexities of that same scene for some baby boomers.

I was seventeen years old in 2000 when George W. Bush was  elected, and thus too young to vote in that election.   Not only could I not believe how long it took to come to a resolution, but I was also extremely disappointed by the outcome. I felt the same when he was re–elected in 2004.  This year, in the months leading up to Election Day, I had a sense of doom because  I was convinced that the Republicans would play “tricks,” and that Barack Obama would lose despite the polls indicating he would win.

My sister and I were lucky enough to be in Chicago in Grant Park  election night,  because our father is a longtime aide to Senator Biden. Nearly everyone I encountered  was celebrating early in the night, before the huge projector in the park declared that Obama was the President-elect, but I wouldn’t let my guard down until it was official.  When the announcement was made, I screamed for almost  5 minutes straight.  So did my younger sister and her friend, who are both 22.  I didn’t cry until McCain’s concession speech, which I found incredibly gracious and touching, and I positively balled during Obama’s speech.    I was crying mostly because the candidate I so strongly supported and admired had won, after eight horrible years of the Bush Presidency. 

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