Why President Obama Had to Apologize to Kamala Harris for Calling Her Good-Looking

April 9, 2013 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics

400px-Kamala_Harris_Official_Attorney_General_PhotoYes, I’m glad that the president apologized.

Kamala Harris was one of the first people I noticed when I went to work as an editor for Women’s Voices for Change. In 2008, I featured this MORE magazine profile, which called the then–San Francisco prosecutor “the female Obama” and hinted that her next destination might be the governor’s mansion.

Then and now, few journalists, including me, could miss what Harris looks like—striking by any standard. But very few have made a major point of it: not MORE‘s Karen Breslau back then, nor most of the reporters who’ve covered Harris since, especially after 2010, when she became the first female, the first African-American, and the first Indian-American chief law enforcement officer in the country’s most populous state.

Which may be why President Obama seemed not to think he was doing anything wrong when, speaking at a San Francisco fundraiser last week, he introduced his law-school peer as “the best-looking attorney general in the country.”  But he knew when he said it that it could be considered sexist: He started by saying that “You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough,” laying on the praise to make way for his laugh line about how ‘”good-looking” she is. To me, all of that “You have to be careful to first say” praise sounded like one of those cover phrases, a sort of “I’m not a sexist, but . . .” Drawing attention to her looks, according to a study released just yesterday by Women’s Media Center, has also been proven to diminish the status of any female politician, whether Sarah Palin or New York City’s Christine Quinn.

Outrage about the president’s statement was widespread, despite comments in the president’s defense from The Washington Post to The Root. Janice Armstrong wrote in the Philadelphia Daily News, “When you’re trying to get ahead based on your skills and abilities, constantly having people comment on your looks can be deflating. It gets old.”

Mediaite summarizes the feminist responses, including Irin Carmon at Salon, who noted that “women’s looks are considered public property, to be commented on, uninvited, whether it’s on the street, in a job interview, or in the press. Many people find it quite easy to do, many of them men, and many people who should know better, like Barack Obama. At the Grio, Zerlina Maxwell agreed: “Adding her looks to a list of adjectives describing her talent diminishes her accomplishments, even if the president said it in an off-the-cuff passing comment.  Harris should be praised for her record, not her physical allure.  Women are not objects who simply exist for male commodification.”  And Slate pointed us to recent research about “benevolent sexism,” quoting social psychologist Melanie Tannenbaum:  “Although it is tempting to brush this experience off as an overreaction to compliments or a misunderstanding of benign intent, ‘benevolent sexism’ is both real and insidiously dangerous.”

That “benevolent sexism” includes those who dismissed the president’s remark as harmless, and professed outrage that anyone would object to a “compliment” they see as something “any guy” might say. But, Obama’s “first you have to say” formulation notwithstanding, he knows it was unprofessional—and unbecoming of a president who has so often made women’s rights  a high priority. I salute the apology, and thank the army of bloggers and Tweeters who evoked it.


Harris on Candy Crowley’s State of the Union, this week.

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 Info.com)

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.

The Ryan Budget: The Path to . . . ?

April 12, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics, The Economy

The chair of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, has performed a great service to the nation in putting forth a budget for 2012 that is also a comprehensive plan for reducing the federal budget deficit over time. No other politician has been bold enough to make concrete proposals for cutting back Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security for fear of committing political suicide by angering voters. These popular entitlements already consume a large chunk of the federal budget and will devour even more if left unchecked. The Republican from Wisconsin has been widely praised for actually producing a plan, even though no one agrees with every one of its provisions. Best of all, Ryan’s proposals have stimulated debate on both sides of the aisle and are beginning to elicit alternative solutions to the budget deficit crisis.

Nevertheless, an examination of the assumptions underlying the plan and a comparison of Ryan’s projections with those of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office regarding the fiscal effect of its provisions in the coming decades show that Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” is more a political document than a realistic budget. Ryan doesn’t explain, for example, why he assumes that federal revenue will return to the historical average of 19 percent of Gross Domestic Product, considering that his plan provides for no revenue enhancements but rather for reductions. It eliminates or slashes financing for programs favored by Democrats while indulging Republicans by retaining the Bush tax cuts and further reducing taxes for the wealthy and corporations.

The level of employment is key in any discussion of deficits. If today, 64 percent of Americans age 16 or older were employed—instead of the approximately 56 percent that are currently working—it has been conjectured that we would have no budget deficit. Employed people pay taxes and don’t need federal aid in the form of unemployment insurance, food stamps and Medicaid. Raising the level of employment increases revenue and cuts expenses. Ryan’s budget blueprint includes no provisions for job creation, yet assumes that unemployment will nosedive immediately under the plan, reaching three percent by 2021, a low we haven’t seen since the 1950s. If we are to grapple successfully with the federal deficit, we must deal with three crises facing us that demand immediate attention. The most pressing is the economic one, which has led to widespread and chronic unemployment at levels not seen since the Great Depression, exacerbated by the housing crash. It will take more spending, not cutting, in the short term to create jobs.

We also have a demographic crisis, because the proportion of retirees in the population is growing. As Baby Boomers retire, they (or in some cases, we) are reducing the number of workers who pay into Social Security and Medicare. At the same time, they are increasing the number of people who draw benefits from these programs. Compounding the fiscal problem and implicitly posing a philosophical one, seniors not only have the highest medical costs, but also live longer than previous generations. The nation will have to cut the Gordian knot of determining how large a share of national resources to apportion to its oldest citizens and how much to allocate to its youngest. (In 2004, the federal government spent more than seven times as much on seniors as on children, though total public spending was closer to 2.5 times as much.) There is a solution that we as a nation are willfully blind to: by restricting immigration, we are depriving ourselves of the younger workers we so desperately need.

The third crisis is the ballooning cost of health care delivery. There is no point in eviscerating Medicare and Medicaid without reforming the entire health care industry. Why should seniors pay much more for less care while the insurance and pharmaceutical industries benefit from sky-high profits? The Affordable Care Act of 2010 does bring down some of the costs, though not so much as it could if both political parties weren’t beholden to health care industry behemoths. The CBO has estimated that repealing Obama’s health care would put us $230 billion further into the hole over the next 10 years, but Ryan proposes to do just that for a savings of $1.4 trillion. Clearly, the two figures proceed from very different assumptions.

Strangely, Ryan’s plan doesn’t deliver a viable solution to the deficit-reduction problem. Since the tax cuts would be effective immediately but the cuts in health-care spending would phase in slowly, Ryan’s plan would actually increase the deficit over the short term, even more than President Obama’s plan would.

Almost half the Ryan plan’s spending cuts would pay for tax cuts rather than reduce the deficit. Pay for tax cuts for the wealthy by gutting Medicare and Medicaid? Two-thirds of the plan’s proposed cuts are taken from programs that benefit people of low income. Is that what we as a nation want? Is that moral?

There has to be a better way. The pain must be spread around. Everyone will have to give up something. Taxes will have to rise and spending will have to be reduced. Now that there is a comprehensive plan on the table, our lawmakers must finally set aside their pouting and posturing and come to terms with the problems that are threatening to overwhelm us. The President and Democratic legislators must come forth with viable counterproposals. The American public deserves nothing less.

Clinton, Power, Rice: Three Women Swing U.S. Policy on Libya (VIDEO)

March 20, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics, World

For days the media were bristling with hints of conflict among President Obama’s advisers in their deliberations on the appropriate American reaction to the Libyan crisis. On Thursday evening, the Security Council’s resolution to mobilize all necessary force short of invasion made clear that the interventionists had won the battle.

When I read the fascinating and suspenseful account of the five-day evolution of American foreign policy towards Libya from wary observation to forcible military intervention, I was struck by the fast-moving narrative, but not nearly so much as by the revelation that the key players who brought about the sharp shift in policy were women. For a veteran of the feminist battles of the 1960s and ’70s, that disclosure was stunning.

Though Defense Secretary Robert Gates was joined by the national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon and the counter-terrorism chief John O. Brennan in arguing against American military action, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton overrode their objections. Samantha Power of the National Security Council (left) and U.N. ambassador Susan Rice (right) had been arguing for the deployment of military force. According to Brian Katulis, a national security expert, “Hillary and Susan Rice were key parts of this story because Hillary got the Arab buy-in and Susan worked the U.N. to get a 10-to-5 vote, which is no easy thing.”

Rice not only strengthened the original resolution, she personally found the missing South African ambassador and his critical affirmative vote when he was absent from the Security Council as it was about to vote on Thursday evening. (Below, see her announcing the vote that day, just as the cards were falling into place).

For more about the power and influence that these women wielded in the policy shift, see the article in last Friday’s New York Times.

On the State of the Union: Swings, Hits, and Misses

January 27, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics, The Economy

This year, the optics of President Obama’s State of the Union address (familiarly known as SOTU) promised to be a departure from recent tradition. Owing to the calls for civility after the Tucson shooting, dozens of members of Congress sat with members of the other party so that we would no longer see one side of the room applaud and rise while the other side remained anchored to its seats, dourly scowling. The new seating plan may be largely symbolic, but it has garnered support in the legislature, in the hope that this gesture toward civility will facilitate measured debate in place of heated invective. Already, the bill to Repeal the Job-Killing Healthcare Law Act has mellowed somewhat, at least in name: it’s now the bill to Repeal the Job-Crushing Health Care Act.

The novelty added anticipation to the festivities, and at some points the awkwardness of a junior prom, with politicians asking for “dates” across the aisle. Majority Leader Eric Cantor asked former Speaker Nancy Pelosi to sit with him, but she’d already made other plans. The oddest couple may have been senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Coburn (R-OK)– pictured near right and right, respectively–who were fierce adversaries over the 9/11 first responders bill. Coburn “graciously agreed” to sit with him, Schumer said on CBS’ Face the Nation. “And,” he added, “I think if Coburn and Schumer can sit next to each other, then probably just about everybody can.”

Obama began began by evoking the spirit of unity he had inspired in Tucson two weeks ago after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and 18 others were shot. This seemed to some a good time to call for stricter gun control, but the president made no mention of the loopholes in our Swiss-cheese gun laws or the need for more thorough screening of gun-permit applicants. He may have deliberately avoided raising any hackles because the shooting that shocked the nation resulted in little or no increased support for stricter gun control.

Job creation and boosting the economy underlay most of Obama’s agenda, which he dubbed “Win the Future.” (It took wags mere minutes to reduce the slogan to “WTF.”) He still wants to ramp up biomedical research and develop information and clean energy technologies. Our infrastructure needs to be rebuilt: roads and bridges are crumbling, our railroads old and creaky while China, Japan, and the Europeans are whizzing along on high-speed rail. The stimulus enabled thousands of workers in the hard-hit construction industry to begin the work of repair; Obama would redouble those efforts, creating jobs and attracting business.

Tacitly challenging the conservative convictions that government is inherently negative, wasteful, and incompetent, and that all investment should originate in the private sector, Obama repeatedly made the case that government investment is crucial if we are to regain our pre-eminence in education, restore our infrastructure, and move forward in the 21st century. The innovations in technology and breakthroughs in medicine and science were made possible by government investment, he stated. But Republicans didn’t fail to note that “investment” is another word for “spending,” which, in combination with “government,” is the conservative bête noire.

But Obama made it difficult for Republicans to oppose new funds for education, pulling no punches about U.S. standings in the global educational rankings. India and China “educate their children earlier and younger,” Obama said. “If we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas, then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.”He went on to declare: “Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree.”

After the Russians surprised us by launching the Sputnik, Obama reminded us, in the 1960s we invested in better research and education, which enabled us not only to surpass the Soviets, but to unleash “a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.”

Some of Obama’s proposals had elements that were red meat to one party and anathema to the other. He proposed closing the loopholes in the tax code, which would make possible the lowering of corporate tax rates. Democrats nodded approvingly at the former and Republicans at the latter. But when he insisted that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans have to go, progressives rejoiced and Republicans fumed.

Naturally, Obama couldn’t ignore the deficit. He proposed freezing annual domestic spending for the next five years, which appears to be at odds with his investment goals. So to offset the spending he advocates for education, infrastructure and research, Obama would eliminate the subsidies—which amount to billions of dollars—to the oil companies, “because,” as he noted, “they’re doing just fine on their own.” To placate conservatives, he encouraged Republicans to suggest improvements to the health care law, and agreed to consider their proposal of medical malpractice reform. But he was, of course, adamantly opposed to the wholesale repeal of his signature legislation.

He said little about entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security, which account for about 60 percent of federal spending—an area of public policy that many of us will be watching closely as the Congressional wrangling begins. He did say these programs will have to be modified, but not “on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.” Obama would, he said, “strengthen Social Security for future generations. And we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.”

Turning to foreign affairs, Obama made no mention of Israel. Yesterday on “Morning Joe,” Zbigniew Brzezinski theorized that this omission may signify either that he’s given up on achieving peace or that he’s expecting a new development in the near future.

Obama didn’t try to sugar-coat the pain and difficulty that lie ahead. We must reduce the deficit, he explained, reform our schools and wean ourselves off “yesterday’s energy” as we develop green ways to satisfy our (hopefully diminished) need. Everyone will be affected by the deep cuts. Sacrifice will be required. But his peroration was devoted to the premise that we can do it because of who we are. “We do big things,” he said.

Here’s hoping we do more of them in 2011.

After Health Reform Vote, What Now?

January 23, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics

Well, that didn’t take long. Having delayed their long-promised vote to repeal health care reform by a week (out of respect for victims and survivors of the Tucson shooting), the House of Representatives passed their bill after two short days of debate. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor asserted that the health care reform legislation had not fulfilled its stated goals of cost containment and insuring everyone, and “it won’t even go into effect until 2014,” so the fiscally responsible thing to do was to stop the construction of the law’s complex system. Meanwhile,  those who’d devised the Affordable Care Act argued that the system, once complete, will reduce the deficit compared to the alternative, and the dangerous thing is to prevent this change from occurring.

The debate was brief and not very explanatory, and the vote’s outcome predictable, given the number of House freshmen (left)  elected partly on a promise to “repeal and replace” the plan they call “Obamacare.” But the debate that took place in the media and before the formal House debate enabled both sides to examine the issue anew, and for Americans to perhaps become more familiar with some provisions already in effect.

In preparation, the White House rolled out endorsements such as: “The American Medical Association does not support initiatives to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Expanding health coverage, insurance market reforms, administrative simplifications and initiatives to promote wellness and prevention reflect AMA priorities.” It also issued videos like the one below, with personal stories of some of its beneficiaries. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius hit Capitol Hill  to issue sober reminders of the situation the ACA was created to address — like the 129 million Americans under 65 with pre-existing conditions, who are vulnerable to being denied private insurance with job loss.

No one, even in the truncated debate, is saying that the status quo is sustainable or the plan’s goals unworthy. Neither Cantor or Speaker Boehner “ever bothered to engage with the fundamental moral logic behind the Affordable Care Act,” writes Jon Cohn at The New Republic, “never questioning  that a modern society guarantees everybody access to doctors, hospitals, and the treatments they provide [and]  that it’s wrong to sit by and watch people give up their savings, or their lives, just because they happened to get sick.” And on Tuesday, former Senators Tom Daschle and Bill Frist issued a statement opposing the repeal. Frist noted that the ACA echoes both the plan put into place in Massachusetts by Republican Mitt Romney and the national plan proposed in 1993 by former Senator Bob Dole (which was opposed back then by Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy). (WVFC’s Susan Baida and John Mills explained the plan for us here.)

The complexity of what’s to come, and the level of uncertainty about its success, has made many doctors uneasy despite the AMA endorsement. Others question the math behind the plan’s budget estimates and further claims. For example, Atlantic economics editor Megan McArdle questioned that pre-existing-conditions figure, asking why, with such need, many of the new state high-risk pools are undersubscribed.

Both the slow timeline and the complexity of the plan spring from the fact that those goals Cohn mentioned are difficult to reconcile. The result is a sort of Rube Goldberg contraption: To cover everyone, including those pre-existing conditions, you pretty much need everyone in  common insurance pools,  which then leads to the mandate that everyone hates and the subsidies that some find suspect. Meanwhile, the huge growth of health-care costs is slowed by those suddenly controversial changes in Medicare funding and by encouraging innovative care models like those mentioned in this week’s New Yorker. The nature of each of the components  is perhaps worth discussing and revising over the next few years. But the House of Representatives decided to focus on the “repeal” portion of their promise, deferring the “replace” portion by tasking it out to four separate committees.

Meanwhile,  since the Senate and President Obama are unlikely to complete the repeal, the House majority knows it can instead starve the machine — refusing to support, in the next budget, items that help underwrite the plan’s fulfillment. The 2.5 trillion in cuts just proposed by one of  the House budget committees starts by keeping all non-defense spending “at 2006 levels.” That means no funding to set up the planned exchanges, community health centers, and increased Medicaid funding. It also means no money to implement even the provisions that have already taken effect: no more free preventive screenings, tax credits to help small businesses insure their employees, or funding to help seniors pay for prescription drugs. It also means no increased HHS staff to ensure that no children are barred for preexisting conditions or that insurers meet the new requirement that 80 percent of premiums go directly to patient care. This week’s vote was symbolic, but the Affordable Care Act is on life support.

Those of us who care about the nation’s 40 million uninsured — who are more likely to be female and over 50 —  must watch carefully what comes out of those committees working on the “replace” part of the House process. We get why some health reform supporters are demanding that those who vote for repeal renounce their own, very comfortable, government-provided health insurance.

At the very least, we must demand that those committees  issue their proposals before the budget is finalized, and that those proposals go beyond the usual suspects (for instance, tort reform and wiping out state insurance laws by allowing insurance to be sold across state lines, a true race to the bottom). With only 18 percent of Americans willing to junk the ACA entirely,  it is irresponsible for them to do less. This week’s vote had better not be a dumb show for a drama to come that ignores the needs of the most vulnerable.

After Giffords Shooting, More Bravery Needed

January 16, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics

From left: Lori Haas and Suzanne Grimes, mothers of students injured in the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007; Elilta Habtu, who was injured in the shooting; and Pat Craig, aunt of Ryan Clark, who was killed in the shooting. The four are shown at a January 2008 event on Capitol Hill introducing legislation to close the “gun show loophole.” (AP Photos/Susan Walsh)

A week after the Tucson shooting that killed six people and gravely injured Gabrielle Giffords, a bipartisan group is pushing back against the conventional Beltway wisdom that nothing can be done to curb gun violence. Among that group, unsurprisingly, are women who were close to shooting victims, like Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (above) and Lori Haas  and Suzanne Grimes. The latter are mothers of individuals who were wounded in the 2007 shooting at  Virginia Tech, which killed 34 people; McCarthy has been a gun-control stalwart since she first ran for Congress in the wake of a 1993  mass shooting on the Long Island Rail Road that wounded 19 and killed six, including her husband.

McCarthy is not asking for anything that would reverse recent Supreme Court decisions that described individual gun ownership as a constitutional right. She and the Virginia Tech survivors are calling for relatively minor changes, such as more funding for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS); the closure of the loophole allowing gun shows to sell weapons outside that already-existing system; and restoring one aspect of the now-expired assault-weapons ban, which prohibited sale of the high-capacity magazines, a lapse that allowed Arizona shooter Jared Loughner to peel off 31 shots before having to reload.

Not that the Arizona shooter needed a gun show to buy his weapon and extra magazines, but the shooting did raise awareness of how much slack there still is in the background-check system, allowing the mentally ill easy access to firearms. Lining up behind the McCarthy bill are members of Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG), which includes a few Republican members willing to brave the wrath of the National Rifle Association, from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to William Currin of Hudson, Ohio.

Those mayors point out–the way Newark Mayor Cory Booker did this week–that easy access to illegal firearms and newly legal ammunition costs 34 lives per day in the United States: a “Virginia Tech every single day.” Meanwhile, Republican Congressman Peter King threw one of the first legislative shots across the bow by proposing guns be illegal within 1,000 feet of a federal employee, just as around schools and churches. All of these proposed restrictions have so far been declared dead in the water, rejected even by Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown. Of course, while most of the mayors in Brown’s state are members of MAIG, Massachusetts is the state in which a jury just exonerated a man who ran a gun show where a child shot himself in the head with an Uzi submachine gun.

Thus is the  power of the NRA and similar organizations, such as the huntsman’s group the Safari Club. And by agreeing yesterday to keynote the next Safari Club convention, former Alaska governor and Fox News contributor Sarah Palin has declared that she also opposes any efforts such as McCarthy’s and MAIG.

With substantial economic and political firepower opposing them, McCarthy, Haas, and the mayors face a stark divide: between those who have heard the gunshots and those for whom firearm ownership is a defense against political tyranny.  I see why it seems a lost cause: this week saw a surge in  sales of  Glock handguns, the same brand as that nearly killed Giffords.

The opponents have long since stopped hearing the voices of McCarthy or Haas. Still, we find ourselves affirming McCarthy’s expressed hope that President Obama, who received bipartisan acclaim for his address in Tucson, might “come off the sidelines” on this issue. One might think that if a nation can come together on anything, it might be to ensure that guns are permitted only in the hands of those who’ve proven they can use them safely, and that obtaining combat-level weapons should be more difficult than buying a pack of cigarettes. And that if political capital exists, there are few goals more worthy of its expenditure. We’ll watch for any such mention in the president’s upcoming State of the Union message.

Can the “civil dialogue” we all promised this week include the facts about gun safety? I guess we’ll see.

Newsflash: Paycheck Fairness Act Blocked Until … When?

November 19, 2010 by  
Filed under Politics, The Economy

This week saw the failure of many hopes  that the Paycheck Fairness Act, passed by the House last year, would pass the Senate in the lame-duck session and become the law of the land. Instead, even debate on the bill was blocked when only 58 Senators voted to allow debate to proceed without a filibuster. (Yes, the maneuver that one journalist calls the “Tarantino,” because “it kills bills.”)  Below, watch as advocates for fair pay meet at the White House to discuss next steps.

“The purpose of the meeting was to discuss today’s Senate vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Administration’s ongoing efforts to promote equality and economic security for American women and their families,” presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett wrote in an email statement sent immediately afterward. She called it “inspiring” to meet with “women who have dedicated their careers to the fight for equal rights for women, including Lilly Ledbetter, who became a relentless advocate for equal pay after fighting her own battle against discrimination.” In the video below, President Obama speaks informally with the group, which included Jarrett; Melody Barnes, the Director of the Domestic Policy Council;  Tina Tchen, Director of the Office of Public Engagement and Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls. We’ll keep you posted on recommendations that come out of these meetings, and possible next steps for those who want to take more action.

Learning from Shirley Sherrod – And Her Mom

August 8, 2010 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics

It’s been about two weeks now since the name Shirley Sherrod first blazed across the headlines — when a misleading blog post, accusing Sherrod of racism, led to her immediate firing by the Department of Agriculture on orders from the White House. The firestorm since has highlighted a word that’s long been a political football: race.

President Obama is calling for a new national dialogue on race. Last week journalist Eric Deggans called the Sherrod case “our newest Rorschach test” on race, adding that it’s “the one scab America can’t stop picking, an itchy friction between black and white that will remain with us for generations, still.”

In the meantime, there are some lessons to be learned beyond the spin.

I’m embarrassed to admit that until last week, I’d not heard of either Sherrod or her husband, civil rights hero Charles Sherrod, one of the co-founders of the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Even without that knowledge, I hope that I’d have responded to a clip from Sherrod’s March 2010 speech to the NAACP, posted as “proof” that a black USDA employee had discriminated against white farmers, by asking one simple question: “Where’s the rest of the tape?”

The 43-minute video (transcript here) should, as University of Maryland professor Sherrilyn Ifill wrote last week, “be required listening for those who want to understand the arc of race and racism in America and the possibilities for redemption in this country.”

If Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had seen the whole video, he’d have heard the full story: Sherrod’s dilemma, 25 years ago, about whether to help a white farmer when so many black farmers were suffering, and how she decided to overcome her own prejudices and do so. (That white family has since spoken up in support of Sherrod.) Vilsack also would have learned about the genesis of Sherrod’s misgivings–how her father had been beaten to death by members of the Ku Klux Klan when she was 17 years old. And if he’d listened to the whole speech, he’d have learned about another remarkable woman: Sherrod’s mother, Grace Hall Miller,  who stared down those same Klansmen a week later, going on to serve for more than 34 years on her local school board.

But when Vilsack received the call from the White House that day, it was not to ask him to look into the Sherrod story. It was to fire her, before the story took on a life of its own elsewhere, before the right-wing noise machine could tag as racist the administration of America’s first African-American president. Benjamin Jealous, the NAACP’s new president, similarly denounced Sherrod before he watched his group’s own video — something for which he’s been rightly held to task by women, including former NAACP communications staffer Amy Alexander and others who wondered if a man would have been as instantly thrown under the bus.

When the truth came out, TV commentators were blaming the NAACP and the Obama administration (ridiculed for the quick firing by The Daily Show, which drew a parallel with “The Apprentice” and Donald Trump). Which is what was intended by the political operatives for whom the slander was simply business as usual. Andrew Breitbart, who originated the story, claims he was given only a partial tape, but he was happy to include it among other anti-Obama screeds on his site. To Breitbart and some others, politics is a blood sport, and the Sherrod episode is merely part of his mission to fight policies he disagrees with by any means necessary. From Breitbart’s perspective, in some ways the nature of the offense is almost irrelevant. I’m fairly sure that if we had Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin as president instead of Barack Obama, we’d be looking at a barrage of misogyny that would dwarf any we’ve seen in 30 years. The intent is to injure.

Even if a woman were the country’s commander-in-chief, it’s likely that I’d still be writing today about a woman wronged. But it might not have been this one. In the reality of August 2010, the weapons used in this fight are old news, echoing the ones that killed Sherrod’s father. Over the years, an array of code words and images have emerged, meant to incite anger and fear: Quotas. Crime. Welfare queens. Riots.

The 21st century has added a few new ones —Anchor babies, madrassas, Ground Zero mosque — as well as a phenomenon that prompted the Sherrod fiasco: a kind of funhouse-mirror set of reversals, where “racism” is used to describe the actions of people of color. As Joan Walsh said in Salon, this reversal is itself criminal:

This is crazy. The fact is, black people were enslaved, they were disenfranchised, they faced legal and illegal discrimination, they have been beaten and lynched and murdered in every gruesome way, in the very recent past, and they now face enduring forms of social and economic discrimination (check out the story of how African Americans with good credit were pushed into subprime loans, if you doubt there’s racism today). We have also made great racial progress, and we now have a black president. Both those sets of facts happen to be true. We have to be able to talk about both of them. But if we have to stipulate, now that we have a black president, that any black person who’s ever said anything negative about a white person, for any reason, can now be called an anti-white “racist,” we have lost the debate, permanently.

When Obama was elected, my brother said briskly, “Well, that’s it. Now people can stop claiming there’s discrimination.” Hollow words. After the election, an acquaintance congratulated me on the election of “your head n****er in charge;” a few months later, protesters shouted worse at a civil rights hero, Rep. John Lewis, as he walked across the Washington Mall. The 2008 election inaugurated a particularly vicious revival of all the code words, and a far more explicit deployment of what used to be called the “Southern strategy” by candidates, now extended (as Walsh also notes) to all 50 states.

Charles Sherrod said last week: “The attack on my wife has opened up an avalanche of discussion on a tabooed subject … RACE. It is a blessing to be an instrument of God’s GRACE.” And everyone from the president to journalist Ifill agrees that such discussion is only way to derail this train: tear open the scab and sterilize it for good. I agree, with one caveat: Whites can’t and shouldn’t rely on people of color to keep the dialogue going. Like many people, I instinctively turned to African-American writers like Ifill, The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Melissa Harris-Lacewell to help me process what had happened.

I was heartened to hear Harris-Lacewell, on The Rachel Maddow Show last week, declare that the situation’s not that dire: “Look, white voters are going to have to the prove to me that they deserve this label of racist and afraid—because the last time that they had an opportunity to vote nationally, they actually got together in an interracial coalition across the country, including places like North Carolina, that went blue…And so, I‘m not yet convinced that white people are this malleable, manipulated into being scared.” But it’s not fair to look to these thinkers to reassure us, or to educate the rest of the country.

So I wonder what such a dialogue can actually look like, when so many are not arguing in good faith. If it happens, I know it will be without the chief offenders: Rush Limbaugh, who tags the president’s health care plan with the 19th-century concept of “reparations;” not Andrew Breitbart, who paradoxically calls himself a “fighter against racial injustice,” and whose Sherrod slam followed his success with a similar (if more complex) video  scam that destroyed a 70-year-old community-organizing nonprofit; and not Glenn Beck, whose delusional charts reflect the reversals of that funhouse mirror.

So what are the lessons to be drawn from the Sherrod fiasco? That vicious politics do not constitute journalism. That any kind of national dialogue sparked by this has to be treated like a public-health campaign, one that treats the funhouse mirror and the “Southern strategy” as poisonous infections in a very old scab. And that if this campaign doesn’t happen, we have to look again at that old definition of insanity: to do the same thing over and over again and expect your results to improve each time.

Women’s Equality Day: Are we there yet?

August 25, 2009 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics

bamarch Women’s Equality Day, August 26, is a holiday first proposed by Rep. Bella Abzug, to honor the anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which women finally gained our hard-earned right to vote. At WVFC, we take the struggle for that day seriously; see Patricia Allen Yarberry’s valentine to those Iron-Jawed Angels (published about a year ago). See below a bit of HBO’s tribute to their strength:

Below, we offer two very different commentaries for the day: first, a celebratory valediction from a rising Army leader, and then a reminder from 9 to 5 that we’re not quite out of the placard stage yet.

Col. Deborah Grays: Women’s Equality Day a reminder to celebrate diversity

deborahgraysIn 1971, the U.S. Congress declared the 26th of August, “Women’s Equality Day.” Aug. 26 is the anniversary of the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides that, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” President Bill Clinton, in his 1994 Women’s Equality Day proclamation, described the ratification of this amendment as, “… an important step toward ensuring that the civil and political rights guaranteed by the Constitution would truly be the equal rights of all Americans.” He described the purpose of Women’s Equality Day as twofold: first, it would commemorate the passage of the 19th Amendment and the achievements and contributions of women in the United States. Second, it would serve as a reminder for Americans to recommit themselves to promoting equality.

Monument at the Capitol to the pioneers of women's suffrage.

Monument at the Capitol to the pioneers of women's suffrage.

The 19th Amendment to the Constitution marked the culmination of a massive, peaceful civil-rights movement that began at the world’s first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls,N.Y. On July 13, 1848, five women met for tea in upstate New York, and after discussing the role of women in American society, decided to send off a notice to the local newspaper announcing a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious conditions and rights of women. Convention participants drafted the Declaration of Sentiments, which began, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” Within this declaration, the call for universal women’s suffrage rang the loudest. After a 72-year struggle, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on Aug. 26, 1920, ending gender-based denial of voting rights in the United States.

On March 8th, President Obama remarked in his International Women’s Day statement that as Americans, we are “filled with great hope that our daughters, and the daughters of all nations, will continue to serve as leaders in the pursuit of our collective well-being and have the opportunity to achieve their full potential.”

As we observe Women’s Equality Day, I encourage all members of our community to appreciate the role women play in advancing the ideals of our Constitution and to recognize that in many parts of the world, full equality for women is only a dream. Women’s Equality Day celebrates how far we have come as a society, as well as the many contributions women are making today. These accomplishments are a tribute to the diversity of American society and to our continuing commitment to equality for all Americans.

Col. Deborah B. Grays is the Garrison Commander for Fort McPherson & Fort Gillem, Ga. The above was taken from her ‘Commander’s Corner’ column.

Linda Meric | On Women’s Equality Day: Are we there yet?

Linda MericEach year, on Aug. 26, we celebrate Women’s Equality Day to pay tribute to those brave suffragists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul and Ida B. Wells Barnett, who led the struggle for American women to win the most critical tool of democracy – the right to vote. Women today not only have the right to vote, but we’ve made significant advances in the world of work, in education, in business, and in many other arenas. Still, Women’s Equality Day 2009 offers the chance for a temperature check. Are we there yet? How close have we come to full equality? And what steps can we take now to come closer? Women in the U.S. still earn only 78 cents for every dollar earned by men. African-American women and Latinas experience an even bigger pay gap. The pay gap persists despite occupation, despite personal choices, despite income, and despite education. In fact, women earn less than their male colleagues just one year out of college, even when the work is exactly the same. And the gap widens after that. Read more

Supreme Court Buzz, Part Two: While You’re in The Neighborhood, Please Stop By

May 20, 2009 by  
Filed under Politics

kaganThis week, three of the women most talked about as potential new Supreme Court Justices just happened to be in Washington.

Conferences happen a lot at Georgetown Law School, many with names like “Fair and Independent Courts in a New Era.” But this week’s conference by that name was dedicated to Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the Court, and at least two of the women on President Obama’s reported short list for the Court were in town for the event. After news leaked that one potential nominee, Judge Diane Wood, was scheduled to meet with the President, “Television cameras filmed Ms. Wood on Wednesday as she walked through the crowd of legal scholars and judges,” reported the New York Times. Wood told reporters “she had long planned to attend the conference and would not answer any questions at the event about the Supreme Court.” Also on the speakers’ list for the conference: Solicitor General Elena Kagan, left, who like Wood is already a target of conservative Web sites opposing Obama’s potential nominees.


Meanwhile, Court buzz also followed the Washington arrival of Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, in town for a clean-air summit and the President’s announcement of new fuel-efficiency standards. The Christian Science Monitor’s Vote Blog whispered that Granholm is “no stranger to the Obama White House. In fact, during the 2008 campaign, she’s the one they called in to prep then-Senator Biden for the high stakes vice presidential debate. And considering Biden’s loquacious nature, this was a titanic assignment. And considering that the debate was not Titanic-like, it speaks highly of Granholm’s abilities.”

In case you’re not convinced of the need for a woman’s appointment to the Court, this week has provided two reminders.

  • First, on Monday, came the Court’s  7-2 decision in AT&T Corp. vs. Noreen Hulteen et al., allowing discrimination in pension benefits if the employee in question took maternity leave before 1979: “The year before, Congress changed the law and said pregnancy must be treated like other temporary disabilities. In a 7-2 decision, the court agreed with AT&T Corp. and refused to award pension credits to those who took a pregnancy leave before the change. The ruling in AT&T vs. Hulteen reversed a decision of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.”
  • Today’s Christian Science Monitor reports on a new study showing that on courts that include women every member would tend to vote differently:
Lee Epstein

Lee Epstein

The research, conducted by Lee Epstein of Northwestern University Law School in Chicago and Christina Boyd and Andrew Martin of Washington University in St. Louis, found that on most issues, there was no difference in the voting patterns of male and female judges. But in sex-discrimination cases, female judges were about 10 percent more likely to rule for the party bringing the suit.

Female appeals-court judges also appeared to have an impact on their male colleagues. The study found that when male and female judges sit together on a sex-discrimination case, the men are almost 15 percent more likely to rule for the plaintiff than when only men are ruling. The study controlled for ideological leanings.

“If Obama is considering two fairly moderate people, one a woman and the other a man, we would expect the woman to cast more liberal votes in sex-discrimination cases,” two of the researchers wrote in The Washington Post on May 3. “The same would be true if the president were considering two very liberal candidates, again, one a man and one a woman.

The recently argued Supreme Court case over the strip-search of a 13-year-old girl, though not a sex-discrimination case, illustrates how often-like-minded judges of opposite sexes can see things differently. During the argument, Ginsburg expressed indignation at the idea of an adolescent girl being asked to shake out her bra and panties in front of school administrators.

Justice Stephen Breyer seemed to shrug. “In my experience, when I was eight or 10 or 12 years old, you know, we did take our clothes off once a day, we changed for gym, OK?” he said.

In an interview later with USA Today, Ginsburg elaborated on her perspective in the case – and that of some of the male justices. “They have never been a 13-year-old girl,” the justice said. “It’s a very sensitive age for a girl. I didn’t think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood.”

Read WVFC’s briefs on both Kagan and Wood here; below, watch Ginsburg talk about her job. We hope she won’t be the only female Justice much longer.

A New Outlook for Stem Cell Research

by Dr. Elizabeth Poynor

President Obama, at a White House ceremony on Monday, announced a lifting  of the eight-year ban on federal support of stem cell research that was imposed by President Bush in 2001. While no decisions have yet been made about expansion of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, today’s move holds great promise for the future of science in our Country and has the potential to exert a profound effect on the future of medicine.

Stem-cell-cultivation-1Stem cells are renewable cells that are found in embryos, and in adults in many fewer numbers. As opposed to the typical cells found in the adult— which cannot continue to actively divide and change their characteristics— these cells can actively divide and replenish themselves for long periods of time, and can be induced to become more specialized cells with specific functions such as the beating cells of the heart muscle or the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.

Although adult stem cells can then be induced to form different cell types in the laboratory, it is much more difficult. Embryonic stem cells are so important because they can more easily be
induced to form specialized cell types (differentiation) than adult
stem cells, which can divide but are already programmed to form
specialized cells (such as muscle, blood cells, intestinal cells) in
order to replenish adult cells that are lost through normal attrition.

As with most research related to human biology, stem cell science was first developed in mouse models.  Embryonic stem cells were first isolated from mouse embryos over 20 years ago and human embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998. These cells were isolated from 4 to 5 day human embryos that were created for in vitro fertilization processes with the consent of the donor. These cells were then used to create cell lines, which are cells that can be grown in the laboratory and used by many investigators for scientific endeavors.

The enormous excitement surrounding embryonic stem cell research is primarily due to contributions that embryonic stem cells can make to so called regenerative medicine (use of stems cells for the development of functional cells, tissue or organ substitutes to repair or replace those damaged by abnormalities, aging, disease or injury) and therapeutic cloning (so called custom embryonic stem cells  derived from an individual’s own DNA and a donor egg which are used to form a blastocyst from which personalized embryonic stem cells can be derived) . Not only does embryonic stem cell research have the potential to contribute to the management and treatment of a large number of diseases such as diabetes, spinal cord injuries, cardiac disease, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, they also have a large potential for scientists to learn about human cell growth and development, which also has the ability to contribute to the understanding of how to control cancer. Due to the controversy and lack of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, scientists have turned their efforts to adult stem cell research and have been successful in developing this science, but the greatest hopes are held for the use of embryonic stem cells due to their enhanced proficiency at cell division and plasticity (ability to be induced to form a variety of cell types).

The controversy surrounding the use of human stem cells has been based in the belief of some that life begins at conception and that the destruction of a human embryo is unethical and immoral. This belief has been the major obstacle impeding the use of embryonic stem cells to advance science and the cure of human disease. President Bush issued a decision in 2001 that limited federal funding of embryonic stem cell   research to 70 cell lines that already existed at that time. President Bush viewed this as a compromise that allowed science to proceed without using tax payer money to promote the destruction of embryos. However, over the years since this decision the number of viable stem cell lines has decreased from 70 to 20, and these lines have been contaminated, thus limiting their usefulness. For others, the medical benefits outweigh these concerns. The UK, Belgium, Sweden, Japan, China and South Korea have allowed embryonic stem cell cloning. The EU does provide funding for countries which embrace embryonic stem cell research.

President Obama promised in his inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place.”  Today’s announcement will lift  eight years of tight restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. This anticipated policy change will free up the use of hundreds of newer cell colonies that have been off-limits under President Bush for federally funded scientists. Previously these cell lines could be used only by researchers funded from private sources. It is anticipated that President Obama will not announce the details of Federal support of embryonic stem cell research, but will allow the National Institutes of Health to craft the policies on how funds will be used to support this work.

The Obama policy change is expected to be not only a source of funding for scientists, but also a symbolic positive for embryonic stem cell research. Federal funding for research primarily is distributed to government agencies and academic institutions, but also sets the tone for research avenues. Indeed, many investigators’ have their academic careers intimately tied to their ability to secure federal funding for their research.

Similar to when recombinant DNA technology and gene therapy were developed, a lifting of restrictions to a sophisticated and controversial type of research does not translate into an instant explosion of scientific findings. Detailed ethical and scientific guidelines will have to be crafted by the NIH, outlining how federal dollars can support research involving human embryos. Laws will also have to be crafted which further outline how stem cell lines can be created.

The FDA will have to also regulate and monitor the safety of this type of work in humans. Recently, the first clinical trial using embryonic stem cells was approved by the FDA in January of 2009.

Patients with spinal cord injuries will be first humans to receive cells derived from embryonic stem cells. Patients who are paralyzed from the chest down will have injury sites injected with cells that hopefully will restore connections and repair damage. Also in January of 2009, a UK company received approval to inject stem cells into the brain with the goal of repairing tissue damaged by strokes.

Federal policies on research often set the standards for ethical
scientific research and the federal approval for stem cell research
will contribute to the credibility of this research avenue and also
would be expected to expand private funding. Indeed, after hours
trading this weekend of companies involved in stem cell research have
demonstrated a new infusion of money into these biotechnology markets. It is also hoped that some of the funds that were awarded to
the NIH under the economic stimulus plan will be used for research
projects employing the promise of embryonic stem cell research.

This is an exciting time in science and medicine. As science becomes more sophisticated, many times ethical and safety issues also become increasingly more complex. We are a sophisticated country with strong moral values, and we also have a commitment to use our discoveries to advance health and medicine in a responsible manner. These two aspects of our culture need not be mutually exclusive.  I look forward to writing about future advances based on this exciting new avenue for science and medicine.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

February 25, 2009 by  
Filed under Newsmakers, Politics

Drallen by Patricia Yarberry Allen

President Obama,  a Senator for only two years before becoming President of the United States, is a lot like that great cinematic figure Mr. Smith, who went to Washington to represent the common man.  

President Obama, in this first address to Congress on February 24th, focused not only on what our citizens expect of Congress and from this administration, not only on past mistakes. He reminded all Americans that we must work together with hope to pull ourselves out of the mire of this economic crisis.

He challenged all Americans to enrich their education not just for private gain but for the good of our country.

President Obama made it clear that this crisis like so many others in our history is an opportunity we have been waiting for. 
He made the financial crisis personal and comprehensible.

He then did the unimaginable.

He made the solutions to our current crises real and certain.

Welcome to Washington, President Obama. 

We have been waiting for you. 

An Open Letter to President Obama, for Washington’s Birthday: What can I Do Now?

February 24, 2009 by  
Filed under Politics, The Economy

  GeorgeWash One of our board members who would rather remain anonymous than feel self serving has suggested that the anniversary of George Washington’s birth is a good day for circulating this letter to our 44th president.

WhiteHouseSouthFacade Dear President Obama,

I am hoping this message will find its way to you or your staff somehow.  I am hoping also that the concept of the “collective unconscious” is what is prompts me to write it; or perhaps such an unconscious, or consciousness, is its goal.

Its message is actually a simple question:  why haven’t you asked more of us?  Why haven’t you told us specifically what you think we can do to help?   We were galvanized, inspired and electrified by the unselfishness you represented to us, by the sense of one nation and the promise of national goals, separate from individual agendas or selfish concerns.  We need you to give us our chores. AmericaServes is a good start, but not enough: Think of the "victory gardens" during World War II, or even the Underground Railroad.

Tutoring3 Can we set up tutoring centers in each town in America, staffing them with townspeople qualified in certain subjects at certain levels?  Should we promise to keep them open from 3 to 10 p.m every weekday and for certain hours of the weekends, in accordance with the good practices you will outline for us on a website?

Should we set about providing services for the elderly, cleaning rain gutters, washing windows, shopping for groceries?

Do we need to be collecting all the nickels in all the houses in America for a specific reason?  And do you need to tell us on what day to deliver them and to where?

Is there a use for all the unused balls of yarn in all the knitters’ yarn baskets?  What about the half-used pads of paper in so many homes?  Stamps that are sitting in boxes?  Muscle power going untapped?

My friends and I talk about how we ache to take part in some national goal—and about how we want you to call upon us to make the effort.  We’re not so naïve as to think you don’t have enough to think about without adding this to the list, but we are so hopeful as to believe that your country wants to serve in its own interest as much as we have tapped you to serve it.

Can we rise to a specific task you assign us?  You’ve said it yourself.  Yes we can.