Wednesday, April 29, 2009

President Obama: 100 Days and Sailing

Today marks President Barack Hussein Obama's 100th day in office, and the mainstream media are all gaga over this arbitrarily selected date. The pundits will argue how he has done, and many will ultimately give him a grade, as if they were the teacher and he the student.

Part of me would like to avoid the issue completely, but I won't. However, instead of embracing this date, I will shake hands with it and try to address the progress Obama has made since his inauguration last January 20th.

Before I share my perspective, I encourage you to check out a marvelous, Pulitzer-awarded website - the Saint Petersburg Times-created Politifact. It keeps track of how well Obama is doing, especially regarding holding to his campaign promises. At this point, the President is doing quite well, even though Politifact points out some important areas where he has fallen short.

So, how do I feel about Obama at this 100-day mark?

  • S-CHIP: As under Bush, this bill providing health care to children passed both houses of Congress. Obama signed it, though.
  • Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009: the first act of congress signed by President Obama, which moved us in the right direction regarding equal pay for women in the workplace
  • Economic Stimulus: Obama's first big test in Congress. It passed, but only along party lines. Many of Obama's campaign promises for domestic change are financed here. The jury is still out on the major impact of this package, but reports have been drifting in that they are making a difference in staunching the bleeding of the recession.
  • Budget: The three legs of the stool - health care, education, energy - for progress into the future. Republicans said no, blue dog dems negociated modifications. It passed today, along party lines (again).
  • Justice Department: Eric Holder was noble and smart to drop the Ted Stevens case. The CIA torture documents were released. Nothing concrete regarding the prosecution of responsible parties. Obama is leaving it to Justice - Congress may move forward on their own. I wouldn't be surprised to see a special "9/11-type" committee designated to investigate the torture done under Bush's watch. If nothing comes of it, progressives will become a burr under Obama's saddle. Obama has promised to close Guantanamo, but he has made no move to close Bagram, where torture also occurred.
  • Veteran Affairs: After years of negligence, wounded soldiers will be given appropriate care when and where they need it.
  • Stem Cell Research: After Bush put down the breaks, Obama has given the green light for using embryonic stem cells to seek cures for many serious health problems.
  • Swine Flu: Obama is correct in communicating "concern" and not "alarm" at this time. The MSM are almost pushing the alarm button, unfortunately. Let's hope this outbreak dissipates as the weather invites more people outdoors, making the spread of the virus more difficult.

Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan: Obama's move out of Iraq is an extremely positive development. Unfortunately, soldiers are being re-deployed to Afghanistan, which is the region Obama promised to focus on. I believe that "AfPak" has the potential for becoming a quagmire, not dissimilar to Vietnam. We've been there eight years already and have now upped the ante, without defining an endgame. I find it interesting that many progressives do not confronted Obama here, or on anything else. I have questioned this military mission before on this website and a cross-posting on Daily Kos, and I have been flamed for it.

Other than "Af-Pak" I believe that Obama has done amazingly well in rebuilding America's relationship with the world:
  • Discussions with Syria and projected with Iran
  • Shifts in relations with Cuba
  • Showing real cojones, along with smarts, in taking out Somalian pirates
  • North Korea is still an area of concern. I'm sure backdoor discussion are going on, but Obama may be pushed into a direct confrontation at some point.
  • The G-20 Summit: Obama showed poise and wisdom during his first international exposure.
  • Mexico: As the American President, Obama will do his best to stem the violence along the border and deal with the flu that has predominantly come from there.
  • Some people, especially Republicans, were concerned that Obama did not stand up to Chavez and Ortega during the Latin America Summit. Obama's approach will, ultimately, pay dividends for the U.S. Just watch...

To check how Obama has done in following through with his 500+ campaign promises, I encourage you to visit Politifact. One hundred days are simply not enough to get more than a taste of how things are going, but over all Obama's doing quite well. Except in one area where Politifact nails him: lobbyists. He campaigned against having them enter his administration, but so far he's been more than welcoming to former lobbyists and they've become central members in his administration.

Democrats: The Blue Dogs have become a thorn in Obama's side, but it seems they have moved forward since he has had talks with them directly. Arlen Specter's shift back to the Democratic Party is huge, since once Al Franken finally becomes Minnesota's second senator, the Dems will have sixty members in the Senate, eliminating the potential for a Republican filibuster. It is yet to be seen if Democrats can become as united as the Republicans have.

Republicans: The party of "No," pure and simple. They have no message that's caught on (including the 'tea parties'). The American people are tired of the GOP's negativity and lack of leadership. Fewer than 20% of Americans self-identify as Republican. For a while, Rush Limbaugh's voice was central, but his hot air has dissipated. Eric Cantor has shown himself to be but a whiner. He complains and cries but no one is listening to him any more. As an intellectual, Newt Gingrich is potentially a leader, but his recent comments have shown him to be anything but thoughtful in foreign policy. He's like McCain, he's a knee-jerk reactionary and a blowhard who would only harm us abroad. Along the way the names Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin popped up. Who are they?

Bipartisanship: Obama learned early on that if he offered his hand to the Republicans they would bite it. So, he's abandoned those efforts. Expect this trend to continue, since the large majorities in both houses of Congress mean he needs to rely less and less on Republican support. Should he try to reach out again? No, there's a new game in town, and they don't have a chance of controlling it. If they move in Obama's direction, true bipartisanship is possible. I think hell will freeze over first, though.


President Obama gets high poll ratings for his policies. His personal popularity is even higher. He's riding a huge wave right now, which is why he's pushing so quickly to get as much of his platform passed now, before the inevitable slide downward arrives.

First Family Mystique: The Obama family holds the attention of the American people to the greatest extent since the Kennedy family in the early 60's. Michelle's popularity is in the stratosphere, and everyone follows the lives of the girls (and the dog, Bo). America can't get enough photos and articles about the First Family. Indeed, they are fun, energetic, young, smart and - importantly - nice. All of them. Until and unless some scandal hits, we are in for tons of daily news feeding the Obama Family Frenzy we are all eagerly a part of.

Barack Obama, Teacher in Chief: I couldn't cover all the issues here, but one thing is for sure: Obama is in charge and guiding our country to a more optimistic mindset. He has done this by communicating clearly and firmly what the issues are and how he will address them. His teaching and community organizing backgrounds regularly poke through whenever he addresses the nation or works with a group of individuals.

Barack Obama, The Personality: His popularity has only grown since the election. His powerful speaking abilities have not yet hit a boring note here at home. He even raised interest in NCAA bracket competitions by completing his own on television. In this way, he portrays himself as an ordinary American, not the policy wonk he becomes during the day. Over seas, millions wait and watch whenever he speaks to them. It is simply incredible that he is able to criticize and yet still be loved. He has become, finally!, the new face of America abroad. He is new, fresh, thoughtful and respectful. Time will tell if world opinion of Americans as individuals changes as well. Obama the Leader is firm, yet calm and steady. He brings confidence to us all, something we lacked for too long.

How long can Obama's popularity last? He has done an amazing job, but he could fall fast with one surprising, devastating event. From where might such a tragedy come?

For different reasons: North Korea, Iran, Mexico.

Or, Obama could die a political death by a thousand cuts. Either a continuing withering economy or an unending, bloody military mission in "Af-Pak" could bring it about.

Obama has said that one hundred days is too short a time to judge him. He says that 1000 days would give a better reflection of the job he's done.

Nonetheless, Americans are obsessed with the number 100, which is why today is so significant. So, how has Obama done in his first 100 days?

Have there been mistakes? Yes. But he has admitted them (a novel concept to Dubya). Do I love every one of his policies? No. But I knew that would be the case. He is steady and thoughtful in guiding America toward the change we wanted.

So, how has he done? I will not give him a traditional grade, which diminishes the enormity of the presidency. Suffice it to say that in these rough and treacherous seas we are currently traveling, I would not want anyone else than President Barack Hussein Obama at the helm of our ship.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

It's Tax Day: Do You Know Where Your Money Is?

Happy April 15h - Tax Day!

Like many Americans, I am concerned with my tax rate, and ultimately how much cash I'll need to pay Uncle Sam this year.

Today, there are supposed to be conservative "Tea Parties" around the country, expressing outrage over the tax policies and stimulus package of the Obama administration. At least, I think that's what they are protesting...

There is a lot of MSM clamor over these protests. I predict they'll get some news for a day or two and then any energy around them will simply dissipate.

These protests do push us to pay attention to where our tax dollars go. Personally, I am pleased with the stimulus funds, since they are used for a variety of important projects throughout the country in an attempt to create and save jobs.

While the media goes gaga over the tea parties' anger over TARP, little noise is made over the percentage of our taxes that go for military spending. Is there anyone out there that lets us know how much of our money goes for military expenditures?

Yes. Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), a Quaker lobby in Washington, D.C., has determined that this year 43% of our monies pay for war.

How do they determine this figure, which differs from the 21% outlined by the president?

FCNL is transparent in explaining their math. They state: "When the president’s proposal says that only 21% of the budget goes to the military, it includes Social Security and Medicare in his definition of the budget. Because this analysis starts with a bigger pie (called the “unified budget”), the military appears as a relatively smaller slice, and social spending looks larger."

FCNL, on the other hand, uses the federal funds budget. "This is the overall budget, including discretionary, entitlement, and mandatory spending, supported by general revenues, including income taxes and estate and gift taxes. Because the FCNL analysis aims to illustrate how our income dollars are spent, it does not include trust funds, such as Social Security and Medicare, which have their own dedicated revenues."

They discuss which parts of the budget they apply to their math: "When FCNL talks about military spending, we talk about two slices – current military spending and spending due to past wars and military activity."

Overall, these are the items that are included in FCNL's calculations:
  • all spending for the Department of Defense (DOD).
  • the “050 function,” a categorizing number that OMB uses to identify defense-related spending, regardless of the agency that spends the funds. This category includes funding in many “independent agencies” as well some parts of the Department of Homeland Security, parts of the Coast Guard, and other bits and pieces sprinkled through the budget.
  • responsibility for the Defense Department retirees as a military expense, although it is not listed as such by OMB.
  • portions of the foreign aid budget that are, in fact, military programs. These include the foreign military assistance accounts and international military training.

One thing is for sure. Add it all up, and we're all paying through the nose for that 43% - which directly and indirectly ties us to the military-industrial complex.

Hmmm... maybe that's something we should actually be protesting.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

You Go, Bo!

Pix of the First Family & The New First Dog, Bo!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Obama Reads - The Breakthrough

"Obama Reads" is the second in a series of reviews of books about Barack Obama and his politics. The first review was on How Obama Won by Chuck Todd.

The Breakthrough:Politics and Race in the Age of Obama
by Gwen Ifill
288 pages

Early in the new year, Gwen Ifill - PBS senior correspondent for The News Hour, and managing editor and moderator of Washington Week, published The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.

Interestingly, the book received some advanced, unintended publicity a couple days before the vice presidential debate. Ifill was preparing to moderate the debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden when some Republicans called for Ifill to basically "recuse" herself. Because her book had Obama as one of the principle topics, McCain supporters believed Ifill would not maintain her journalistic distance and asked her to removed herself from her role in the debate.

As history demonstrated, the Republicans had little to fear from Ifill because she did her job professionally and maintained her neutrality. Sarah Palin, though, posed a much greater threat to the McCain campaign than any reporter could.

The Breakthrough is Ifill's analysis of contemporary African American politics, which have developed a new identity and M.O. in recent years. The book is based on her long-term observations, as well as interviews she completed with significant African American politicians.

The structure of this book creates helpful alternating tones. The author focuses on current trends and themes in African American politics. She alternates her thematic chapters, however, by delving deeply into the political stories of several prominent African Americans:
  • Barack Obama (U.S. President)
  • Artur Davis (U.S. Representative from Alabama)
  • Cory Booker (Mayor of Newark, NJ)
  • Deval Patrick (Governor of Massachusetts).
The themes Ifill analyzes are:
  • Breaking Through: How African Americans have become increasingly successful, especially in elections where the majority is not African American
  • The Generational Divide: How the younger generation of politicians has bucked the African American norm by not "waiting their turn" to run. Ifill identifies different tactics used today compared to those of politicians who came out of the the civil rights movement.
  • The Race-Gender Clash : Ifill investigates tension that arose during the democratic primary of Obama v. Clinton. She clearly explains that the race-gender line was complex and constantly shifting - which of course added to the confusion and complexity for all concerned.
  • Legacy Politics: The author discusses the relatively new phenomenon of the inheritance of power among African Americans. She focuses especially on the Jackson of Illinois, the Fords of Tennessee, and the Clays of Missouri to look below the surface of how this political power exchange has developed.
  • The Politics of Identity: "Is he black enough?" This is the question that haunted Barack Obama early in his campaign. Ifill thoroughly explains why such a question might be asked. She covers physical (skin color), linguistic (how a politician talks), cultural (how a politician acts), and political ("What will s/he do for us?") attributes in looking at the subtleties of how current African American candidates walk the treacherous tight-rope of racial identity.
  • The Next Wave- Ifill quickly discusses a range of young, up-and-coming black politicians who hold a wide range of local and state positions. A few examples are : San Francisco D.A. Kamala Harris, California State Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.
In addition to Ifill's useful structure, she included the metaphor of "sandpaper," which helped me internalize and remember her concepts. "Sandpaper," as in "sandpaper politics" or "sandpaper moments," was used to explain the tension or discomfort that existed between traditional allies, such as younger and older generations of African Americans. The outcome of the application of such "sandpaper" may ultimately lead to a transformation in perception and/or behavior - a new reality, if you will - becoming a new political M.O.

I highly recommend The Breakthrough. It is a must read for anyone who wishes to to gain a clearer understanding of today's new generation of African American politics, which, in fact, is increasingly making itself a powerful, central dynamic in American politics as a whole.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Please Sign Global Zero's Nuclear Weapon Ban Petition

Dear Friends,

President Obama of the U.S. and his Russian counterpart, President Medvedev, met at the G20 Summit last week. The primary topic of the summit was our economic crisis, but Obama and Mdvedev have decided to meet again this summer to sign a treaty to reduce our two countries' stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Indeed, President Obama spoke at the NATO summit in Prague and lifted multi-lateral elimination of nuclear weapons as a goal for the entire world. This is excellent news!

As ordinary citizens, we must continue to let our leaders know that nuclear disarmament needs to be a priority for the 21st century. I have recently become aware of an organization whose purpose is to convince world leaders to completely ban nuclear weapons. It is called Global Zero, and Queen Noor of Jordan is the spokeswoman for this effort. In addition to presiding over the World Colleges Union and advising the U.N. on global peace-building efforts, she has been a leading voice in recent years for the elimination of land mines and cluster bombs, which have caused so much senseless killing of innocents around the world.

Through Global Zero, Queen Noor is now speaking out for ridding our world of nuclear weapons. I encourage you to visit Global Zero's website to see which world leaders have signed on in support of Global Zero's initiative. There you will see that these leaders, of all backgrounds and political affiliations, support the Global Zero's plan to reduce and eliminate U.S.-Russia and world-wide arsenals, as well as to manage the fuel cycle to prevent future development of nuclear weaponry.

Please add your voice to those from around the world by signing Global Zero's petition.

Please feel free to pass this information along to others in your organization, so they may take part in Global Zero's important initiative as well. We cannot afford not to take advantage of this growing momentum.

In Peace,

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Obama and U.S. Policy at G-20 Summit

I must admit it. Although I am a huge Barack Obama fan, I have been disappointed in his administration's first steps in the foreign policy realm.

I was very excited that Hillary Clinton was named Secretary of State, but she and her staff made an embarrassing translation error before the Russian foreign minister. Clinton was quick to show her embarrassment and laughed it off, and it may have been a small detail, but it showed momentary incompetence at a high diplomatic level.

I was pleased that Obama announced our withdrawal from Iraq. Yet many of the troops will simply be shifted to Afghanistan, which is where I have my greatest trouble. I have posted on this concern more than once. My greatest fear is that Afghanistan will simply become a quagmire, and that thousands more soldiers and civilians will die in the process. In addition, I am not convinced that an endgame has been developed, which means we could be there a long, long time.

Obama's experience at the G-20 summit gave me mixed hopes for our foreign policy future. First, it was announced that Obama would visit President Medvedev and discuss the joint reduction of both countries' nuclear arsenal. Nice step!

Then, word came out that late this summer, Obama will visit China, where I am sure the economic relationship will be discussed in depth. In a shifting economic world, this is a crucial direction to move in, particularly since China is the number one banker for the U.S.

French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized Obama for seeking too much economic stimulus. I rolled my eyes when Sarkozy threatened to walk out if world banking regulations were not changed to his liking - his manipulation quickly got under my skin.

I was more understanding of Chancellor Merkel's fears of excessive stimulus leading to high inflation, since German society has historically been ravaged by inflationary practices. Indeed, many would say that Hitler was a result of such policy.

Obama understood that European economic systems differ from America's. They have greater entitlements, which have protected their citizens from the effects of the crisis to a greater degree than ours has.

Therefore, Sarkozy and Merkel's calls for greater banking regulation made sense. In addition, Europeans felt that the U.S. should be more contrite, since this crisis began in America, they say. Plus, they didn't want the United States to dominate the conversation or the economy, as it has since World War II.

Obama pushed for more economic stimulus infusion on international fronts, yet he also agreed to greater regulatory oversight and controls. Somehow, the world's leaders reached the middle ground Obama desired with a multi-pronged agreement, and Sarkozy kept his little feet from walking out.

They agreed to $750 dollars from the International Monetary Fund to support seriously troubled economies and $250 billion to boost foreign trade. In addition they decided:
  • Bankers' pay and bonuses will be subject to stricter controls
  • A new Financial Stability Board will be set up to work with the IMF to ensure co-operation across borders and provide an early warning mechanism for the financial system
  • There will be greater regulation of hedge funds and credit ratings agencies
  • A common approach to cleaning up banks' toxic assets has been agreed
  • The world's poorest countries will receive extra aid.
Unfortunately, American pundits treated this entire process as a football season, focusing on who was "winning or losing." "Will Obama be pushed around?" they asked.

Give it a rest, folks! This process was not zero-sum, as Dubya always approached it. He swaggered around the world stage and refused to cooperate with other leaders. Obama, though, moved in another direction by modeling cooperation and positive engagement. He said he was there to listen - he couldn't force others to do something they didn't want to do.

Nonetheless, he stood firm in his directing America's leadership, and both our international reputation and influence improved. For the moment, though, we must work to find ways to solve this international crisis. And it didn't come from either the Europeans pointing fingers at the U.S. or from the U.S. throwing its weight around.

The irony is that, once he moves on to NATO discussions, Obama may be able to convinced more countries to join us in Afghanistan. That move would put more people in danger, increase civilian death and destruction, and potentially place everyone in the throes of another interminable Asian war. The positive reputation that Obama so carefully nourished at the G-20 would then find itself flushed down the toilet, of not only international opinion, but of history itself.