Thursday, January 20, 2022

Biden needs a reboot for second year -- Jan. 20, 2022 column


It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Joe Biden won more than 81 million popular votes, the most of any presidential candidate in American history. He won 306 electoral votes, well more than the 270 needed for presidential victory.

And yet, one year into his presidency, only 43% of Americans approve of the way he’s handling his job and 56% disapprove, the latest Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll reported Thursday.

It was one of many recent polls that show Biden underwater. There are many reasons for his fall from grace: the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, inflation and lasting COVID-19 misery, to name three.

But no other president has had to deal with the headwinds of a predecessor who refuses to accept defeat, goaded his followers to storm the Capitol in hopes of overturning the will of the people, and continues to cling to his delusions that he won.

This should scare everybody who cares about democracy. To this day, many Republicans stubbornly believe the Big Lie, although the former president and his supporters have failed to prove any of their allegations.

Candidate Biden promised to restore integrity, dignity and competence to the White House. People were grateful for his steadiness and calm after four years of unrelenting craziness.

In his inaugural address last year, Biden cautioned that overcoming the many challenges facing the country would require “that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity. Unity.” And he asked every American to join him in the cause.

Sadly, they didn’t. Biden has had to fight to keep progressive Democrats on his side. Meanwhile, Republicans solidly united against him.

“I did not anticipate that there’d be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done,” Biden said in his news conference Wednesday.

Only 28% of people think the country is on the right track, according to the most recent Real Clear Politics average of polls.

Biden says he doesn’t believe polls, but they show a disturbing trend in an election year. Both political independents and Democrats have turned away from him.

Gallup reports that Biden’s job approval rating -- 50% among independents during his first six months – has plunged to 33%. Early on, 90% of Democrats said Biden was doing a good job; that support has dropped to 80%.

Biden’s numbers are almost as bad as his predecessor’s after a year. Only 38.4% of Americans approved of President Donald Trump’s job performance then, Gallup reported.

Biden’s news conference lasted nearly two hours. Although nearly everyone agrees it went on too long, Biden showed a command of many topics, which should dispel criticism he’s not mentally up to the job. But he left unclear how the United States and NATO may respond to a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Biden defended his record, citing 6 million new jobs created in the last year and a drop in the nation’s unemployment rate to 3.9% from 6.2%.

He also suggested he plans a reboot. Let’s hope so. A shift in approach and tone will be necessary to mend relations with voters and save his party from ignominy in November.

He will spend more time traveling, campaigning with congressional candidates, and raising campaign money, he said. He hopes looking voters in the eye and telling them where he stands will remind them why they voted for him and persuade them to back Democratic candidates.

He also will consult experts from academia, editorial writers and think tanks for “constructive criticism about what I should and shouldn’t be doing.”

That Biden is open to advice is an encouraging sign.

Hours after the news conference, the Senate jettisoned a massive voting rights bill, dealing the president another blow.

Biden vows not to give up on his stalled legislative agenda, though it will not be as grand as he hoped. He likely will break up the Build Back Better bill into digestible parts and press for passage of popular items, such as the climate section.

By focusing on the most important issues, he can challenge Republicans to put up or shut up.

Previewing a theme we’re likely to hear often, he said:

“Think about this: What are Republicans for? What are they for?”

© 2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

`A day on, not a day off’ for MLK -- column of Jan. 13, 2022


The federal holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. blends celebration, reflection and action.

On the third Monday in January, typically there are parades, prayer breakfasts, church services, concerts, readings from the writings of the slain civil rights leader and, yes, sales. Shopping, though, is far less a focus than on other federal holidays.

The King holiday is our national day of service, when Americans are encouraged to volunteer to make their communities better.

King would have turned 93 on Jan. 15. He received the Nobel Peace Prize at 35 and was only 39 when he was tragically killed by a sniper in 1968.

Time dims memories, so it’s worth remembering the holiday honoring him was hard won. Black members of Congress had to fight for 15 years to get the holiday through Congress.

Sen. Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, once filibustered the bill with 300 pages of documents accusing King of being a Marxist with communist leanings. Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy or Massachusetts and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York declared the papers “filth.”

Congress finally passed and President Ronald Reagan signed the law creating the King holiday in 1983, with the first observance in 1986. But some states resisted. Arizona did not recognize the holiday until 1992 and New Hampshire in 1999.

Until last year, Virginia still honored Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with a state holiday on the Friday before the King holiday.

Shortly after the first MLK federal holiday, The New York Times published a letter from a Princeton University sociology professor.

“I propose we declare the holiday a `day on,’ rather than a `day off,’” Marion J. Levy Jr. wrote. His idea was that everyone would work on the holiday and those above the poverty line would send their wages to a special MLK fund benefiting education, housing and other projects.

Persuading millions of Americans to work on a holiday and donate their pay was a bridge too far, but the idea of service caught on.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the King Holiday and Service Act, officially designating the holiday as a day of national service.

Overshadowing the commemorations this year is the political battle over voting rights legislation.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris paid tribute to King and met with his family Tuesday in Atlanta before the president delivered a fiery speech evoking King’s memory to press for passage of voting rights legislation.   

Voting rights used to be a bipartisan issue but, like most things, it has become fiercely politicized. Partisans can’t even agree on facts.

Biden and many Democrats contend passing the two voting rights bills before Congress is so crucial to restoring equity in the election system that the Senate should set aside the filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes, if necessary.

But Republicans vociferously claim the voting rights bills are a massive power grab by Democrats, an attempt to rewrite the nation’s election laws to benefit Democratic candidates.

Biden hopes to make where legislators stand a key marker in this year’s midterm elections.

As senators wrestle with their role in history, the rest of us can find meaningful ways to observe the holiday.

You can Google local MLK service events. If wintry weather or the pandemic makes in-person volunteering problematic, the federal government has two service opportunities people can do at home.

Both the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution are seeking volunteers to transcribe historical documents virtually. Digital volunteers are helping to make letters, field notes, diaries, manuscripts and other handwritten documents more widely available.

For example, the Smithsonian needs help transcribingrecords from the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was formed to improve the lives of formerly enslaved men and women during Reconstruction.

The Library of Congress needs help transcribing pages from George Washington’s farm reports that chronicle the lives and labor of enslaved people at Mount Vernon as well as other aspects of 18th century farm life.

The library also has projects transcribing Walt Whitman’s letters and Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscape architecture files. 

This MLK holiday is a chance to learn while we serve.

“Everybody can be great,” King said, “because anybody can serve.”

©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, January 6, 2022

New Year -- 2022 off to a rocky start -- Jan. 6, 2022 column


 Hey, 2022, could we have a do-over?

 You may be hardly a week old, but this in-with-the-new thing isn’t working out. A new year promises a fresh start and a clean slate, but, honestly, you haven’t delivered.

 It’s bad enough that we’re entering our third year of coping with an invisible enemy, the coronavirus. The first case of COVID-19 in the United States was identified on Jan. 20, 2020. We didn’t know then it was called alpha to distinguish from later variants.  

 Vaccinations and boosters were supposed to set us free, but no. Even those who did the right thing, got their shots, wore masks and washed their hands got caught by the latest and most transmissible variant, omicron.

 People who want to be tested must stand in long lines, if they can find tests at all. The good news is the people who followed health guidelines are less likely to be hospitalized and to die than those who shun vaccinations and boosters.

 Still, omicron is disrupting society as it rampages the country and the world.

 Hospitals and the saints who take care of patients are slammed, mainly by those who haven’t gotten their jabs. Airlines canceled thousands of flights around Jan. 1 due to staff shortages caused by sick and quarantining employees. Then a snowstorm hit the East Coast.

 Those who abandoned air travel for cars and trains this week were also headed not for their destinations but for misery. We simply couldn’t get there – or anywhere – from here.

 The debacle on nearly 50 miles of I-95 in Virginia, coupled with gridlock on surrounding roads, created a logjam that affected hundreds of motorists trying to head north and south. Amtrak trains were also stuck under the weather, unable to handle even the most basic of passenger needs – food and toilets.

 Schools in Chicago and other places shut down or returned to remote learning as the pandemic again made in-person classes risky to teachers, staff and students. Businesses pulled back on bringing staff to their offices. Reports of the death of the Zoom culture were premature.

 It’s easy to make New Year’s resolutions for other people – and much more satisfying than making them for oneself – so here’s one for Virginia and federal transportation officials: Work together to focus on essential services.

 We need a country where the systems work. Competence may not be sexy, but it is necessary for peace and prosperity.

 We know Northern Virginia hadn’t had a good snow in a couple of years, and the bizarre change from balmy temperatures in the 60s over the weekend to rain and then heavy snowfall – up to 2 inches an hour – on Monday was discombobulating.

 Transportation officials said they couldn’t pretreat highways because the chemicals would have washed away in the rain. But other states routinely deal with heavy snowfalls without such disastrous consequences.

 And once nearly a foot of snow stopped traffic, surely authorities could have done something to help people stranded in their cars in the cold and dark for more than 24 hours.

 Gov. Ralph Northam wasn’t helpful when he stated the obvious, that people should have stayed off I-95. I’m sure they wish they had.

 But truckers, who are trying to alleviate supply chain shortages and have schedules to keep, as well as other seasoned motorists, know interstates are usually cleared of snow first and are safer than secondary roads in inclement weather.

 When people were finally able to get off I-95 near Fredericksburg, they faced more gridlock on secondary roads. Many travelers reported an absence of authorities to direct traffic or help in any way.

 As officials probe what went wrong, they need to avoid finger pointing, make solid recommendations and implement them.

Americans don’t want more politicking. We want to know we can go where we need to go, safely, and at reasonable speeds. We want our highways and trains to operate efficiently.

 So, while we might like a do-over for the first disastrous week of the new year, there are still 51 weeks left to inspire confidence in America’s ability to function – even if more snow falls. We’re counting on you to do better, 2022.

 ©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Bald eagles bring cheer as they carry on -- Dec. 30, 2021 column


The sun shone, the Potomac River reflected a cloudless blue sky and high in a tree were two majestic bald eagles.

They perched side by side on a leafless branch where eagles had nested for years along the George Washington Memorial Parkway a few miles north of Mount Vernon. The nest was gone, perhaps destroyed by heavy rain or wind, but on a bright post-Christmas morning this week, the eagles were back.

As my partner Keith and I took pictures, a passerby said: “There are George and Martha, watching over us.”

The sighting was a good omen made even better about 20 minutes later when we spotted two more bald eagles, or maybe the same ones, in wooded parkland by the river. Someone told us the eagles often hang out on a small island nearby.

The chance encounters with eagles and their admirers were cheerful moments at the end of a largely cheerless year.

Seeing bald eagles in the wild is no longer the miraculous event it was in the 1960s. Today, their presence delights us and is a welcome reminder America can do something right for the environment.  

After nearing extinction in 1963 with fewer than 500 nesting pairs remaining, the bald eagle population in 2019 was an estimated 316,700 individuals, including 71,400 nesting pairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported last year. The population had quadrupled since data were last collected in 2009.

“The bald eagle is an Endangered Species Act success story,” the service says on its website.

A species native to North America, the bald eagle was chosen our nation’s symbol in 1782. Benjamin Franklin famously was not a fan. He called the bald eagle “a bird of bad moral character. It does not get its living honestly” but steals from other birds. 

While bald eagles eat mostly fish, waterfowl, small mammals and carrion, they got an undeserved reputation as preying on farm animals. Farmers shot many to protect their livestock. Eagles’ numbers also suffered from a loss of habitat.

Congress passed protection for the bald eagle in 1940, prohibiting killing, selling or possessing the raptor. It added protection for the golden eagle in 1962.

After World War II, the advent of DDT, a pesticide used to control mosquitoes, decimated the bald eagle population. The chemical washed into waterways and eagles ate contaminated fish with disastrous results. Eagles’ egg shells were so thin they broke during incubation. 

Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, awoke many to the environmental dangers of pesticides.

The Endangered Species Act, signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973, and a ban on DDT gave bald eagles a second chance. The wildlife service and its partners stepped up captive breeding and reintroduction programs, law enforcement, habitat protection and land purchases.

The bald eagle’s remarkable comeback led to its removal from the endangered list in 2007. It remains protected by other measures.

Franklin and other founders could not have imagined that today we can watch eagles on 24-hour HD cameras trained on their nests. The closeups show us bald eagles aren’t actually bald. They have snowy white heads on charcoal-brown bodies.

Bald eagles usually mate for life and return to the same nests time and again.

But there was trouble at home this year between the National Arboretum’s bald eagles, Mr. President and First Lady, who first nested there in 2015 and fledged seven eaglets.

Cameras captured the drama in their nest 80-feet above the earth in a tulip poplar tree as interlopers started dropping in. First Lady tried to chase the females away.

“She would come in at 50 to 60 mph with the talons out,” Dan Rauch, wildlife biologist, told The Washington Post.  But she herself was displaced in February by a younger female who cozied up to Mr. President and stayed. It was 2021, wasn’t it?

Initially, the new female was known as V5, but she recently was given the name Lotus, for Lady of the United States. She and Mr. President mated last week.

So, as life continues in the eagles’ nests, we can all be grateful for the bald eagles’ recovery.  

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

No holiday from masks, tests as omicron surges -- Dec. 23 2021 column


As omicron tightens its grip, the mayor of Washington, D.C., Monday declared a state of emergency.

Once again, masks are required indoors in such places as churches, gyms and grocery stores, regardless of vaccination status. Masks are not yet required in restaurants and bars in the nation’s capital, as they are in New York and Los Angeles.

“I think we’re all tired of it. I’m tired of it, too,” Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said, announcing the mask mandate will last until Jan. 31. “But we have to respond to what’s happening in our city and what’s happening in our nation.”

The mayor is correct. What’s happening is nearly three-fourths of the new coronavirus cases in the United States are now from the highly transmissible omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday. Coronavirus daily case totals are at their highest level since last summer.

There is no statewide mask mandate in Virginia, but the Virginia Department of Health recommends masks be worn indoors in communities with substantial or high COVID-19 transmission.

More than 800,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19. Public health officials knew the coronavirus mutates and new variants were likely. Still,  fast-spreading omicron caught nearly everyone by surprise last month.

Much remains unknown, including whether the illness omicron causes is less severe than the delta variant’s, and what the long-term effects of even a mild case may be.

The first death in the United States related to omicron was announced Monday. The victim was an unvaccinated man in his 50s with an underlying health condition in Houston, authorities said.

So, while we all feel coronavirus fatigue, we find ourselves on the verge of another  New Year having to rally again to fight an insidious, unpredictable virus.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who died this year, once said you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might wish you had.

It’s wrong that Americans have had to stand in line for hours for coronavirus tests, as they have in some parts of the country. Other nations have long been able to supply their residents with free, at-home test kits.

The Biden administration is now rushing to make available, starting next month, 500 million free, rapid, in-home coronavirus test kits. The government is opening more testing and vaccination sites, deploying military medical teams to overwhelmed hospitals, and plans to expand hospital capacity.

These are important changes that remind us we are not in the same place we were a year ago. Last year during the holidays we glimpsed the hope of vaccinations as the end of the pandemic. This year, we known the pandemic is still with us, and we are lucky if all we must endure are its inconveniences.

Mask and vaccination mandates cannot be partisan when the virus is bipartisan. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, who both are vaccinated and boosted, tested positive for COVID-19, as did Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, and a cancer survivor.

Breakthrough COVID-19 cases are common. President Joe Biden, 79, sat near someone on Air Force One the other day who later tested positive.

Most breakthrough cases seem to be mild, which is why Biden is urging every eligible American to get fully vaccinated and boosted.

And yet, when former President Donald Trump said Sunday in Texas he had received a booster, some in the audience booed. That’s a sad commentary on the misguided, ill-informed, anti-vax crowd.

Fortunately, there are no plans for lockdowns or a widespread return to remote schooling. We are learning to live with uncertainty.

Wearing an effective mask, such as the N95, getting vaccinated and boosted, and tested if we feel sick or are exposed to someone with COVID-19 are steps all of us can take to protect ourselves and others.

Those who feel their personal liberty is abridged by mask mandates can do something about it: They can stay home, off public transportation and out of public places.

As much as we Americans don’t like rules or mandates, especially rules that change, we must live in the real world. We all want the pandemic to end. We also want our families, friends and ourselves to be around next year. Be vigilant.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, December 16, 2021

In an anxious time, ads tug at our heartstrings -- Dec. 16, 2021 column


Time magazine picked Elon Musk as its 2021 Person of the Year – the individual “who most shaped the previous 12 months, for better or for worse.”

Musk, with his Tesla and SpaceX companies, emerged this year “not just as the world’s richest person but also as perhaps the richest example of a massive shift in our society,” Time fawned. “Like it or not we are now in Musk’s world.”

Well, maybe. I’ve never ridden in a Tesla, nor do I plan to any trips into space, although I know someone who loves playing Solitaire while letting his Tesla maneuver through highway traffic.

Even if the car is amazing, I can’t imagine a Tesla exerting the emotional pull of a restored 1966 Chevy Impala convertible like the one in “Holiday Ride,” Chevrolet’s new commercial. The four-minute version is a movie unto itself about grief, love and the power of memories.

With so many of us on edge in year two of a merciless pandemic, the Chevy ad is one of several holiday commercials that tug at our heart strings and show us our humanity.

Spoiler alert – I will be telling the stories of these ads. The Chevy commercial features a grieving widower in rural America who visits the dusty, dilapidated Impala in the barn, fighting tears as he holds a photo of a smiling young woman, presumably his late wife, in happy times with the new car.

His daughter sees him putting holiday wreaths on the barn door and secretly enlists local mechanics for “night work.” They painstakingly restore the car to its former glory for a surprise reveal.

It’s “the best Christmas gift I could ever have,” dad tells daughter, and they and their dog hop in for a spin.  If you don’t tear up watching, you may have left your heart in 2020.

“Kindness, the Greatest Gift,” set to Adele’s new song “Hold On,” features the kindness of strangers during the pandemic. In this Amazon global holiday campaign ad, we see a young woman university student alone, struggling to return to near-normal life. 

In a park, an older woman neighbor, feeding birds from her palm, notices the younger woman sitting alone, seemingly downcast.

Back in her apartment, the older woman hears a news report about young people being anxious during the pandemic. She orders something on her cell phone from, of course, Amazon. The younger woman receives the surprise gift of a bird feeder and is touched by the kind gesture. The ad fades out with the two talking and sharing a park bench.

“The past 18 months have been challenging for people across the globe, including many young adults,” Ed Smith, an executive at Amazon European Union, said in a statement. “So this year, whilst the world will not be totally back to normal, opportunities for kindness and connection will take on a newfound importance.”

Another European commercial available to watch online comes from Posten, the postal service of Norway. The heartwarming, adult-themed “When Harry Met Santa” imagines brief, Christmas Eve encounters that evolve over years into a romance. The ad celebrates the 50th anniversary in 2022 of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Norway and the postal service’s commitment to diversity.

Closer to home and more traditional is a Wegmans Food Markets broadcast ad, which features a young boy energetically and enthusiastically doing chores – raking leaves, pushing a heavy trash bin to the curb, delivering huge pots of mums, shoveling snow and putting up holiday lights.

As his family celebrates with a big holiday dinner, presumably from Wegmans, the boy dishes up a plate of food and takes it next door. Viewers realize then he has been doing the chores not for his own family but for his neighbor, an elderly woman. She comes to the door and is touched and surprised by the gift of food.

The ad is one of three in a campaign Wegmans calls “Back to Happy.” They use as a theme the children’s song, “The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.”

And, so, may we all be happier on Earth this holiday season – even if we must steer our own cars through the traffic to get together with family and friends.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Midterm campaigns kick off with a political jab -- Dec. 9, 2021 column


During a recent medical test, I noticed my face mask had slipped down.

“Sorry!” I said to the technician, who was also masked. “I’m vaccinated and boosted, and you are too, right?” Slight pause.

“I’m healthy,” he said, using a favorite dodge of the unvaccinated.

Why would anyone whose job requires close contact with people who could be sick or immune-compromised take such a risk for himself, his patients and co-workers?

He said he had decades of experience, including at a hospital where tuberculosis patients coughed in his face, and was healthy. He doesn’t buy the need for vaccinations against COVID-19, thinks they could be harmful, and believes the number of reported COVID deaths is inflated.

Scientists, however, agree vaccinations help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and its severity and are less risky than the disease.

Most healthcare workers voluntarily take the commonsense precaution of vaccinations. Still, about 30% of workers in hospitals were unvaccinated as of September, according to a Centers for Disease Control study.

Last month, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued rules requiring vaccinations for healthcare workers and for businesses with 100 employees or more. Both rules are stalled, at least temporarily, by court challenges.

The healthcare rule would require all workers in facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid funding to be fully vaccinated, with no exceptions, or facilities could lose federal funding. The OSHA rule includes a provision that allows workers who do not get vaccinated to be tested weekly and wear masks on the job.

 President Joe Biden was reluctant to impose such vaccination mandates, but after incentives and voluntary behavior weren’t enough, he earlier rolled out requirements for federal workers and employees of federal contractors to be vaccinated.

The mandate for contractors, which included limited exceptions for medical and religious reasons, was blocked Tuesday in federal court. The White House vows to continue fighting for mandates.

Many private employers have imposed vaccination mandates on their own. They realize the economy won’t get back to normal – whatever that is -- until more of the population is protected against this deadly, unpredictable disease.

The latest troubling news about the fast-spreading omicron variant has led public health officials to urge everyone eligible to get vaccinations and booster shots. New research from Pfizer and BioNTech indicates a booster shot may help protect against omicron, but it’s too soon to know.

Opponents argue vaccination mandates are an example of federal overreach. Politicians like to claim they personally are pro-vaccine but anti-mandate. They conveniently forget they and their children had to receive vaccinations against other diseases to enroll in school.

But COVID-19 vaccination mandates are seen as a potent political issue for the midterm elections. The Senate voted Wednesday to repeal Biden’s mandate for companies with more than 100 employees. All Republicans and two Democrats – Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana -- voted to nullify the mandate.

The 52-48 vote was largely symbolic, if not a political stunt. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is unlikely to bring the measure up for a vote in the House, and if it were to pass, the White House said Biden would veto it. It would be his first presidential veto.

Opponents of mandates say their constituents fear mandates will cost jobs and wreck the economy, but instead of working to educate the uninformed, politicians pander.

“Encouraging and requiring are two different things,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito. Republican of West Virginia, told reporters. More than killing the American economy, she said, the vaccine mandate is “killing the American spirit of being able to make decisions about yourself, to be respected for that.”

Oh, please.

Vaccination mandates may be more popular than Republican politicians think. Half of Americans support the mandate for businesses with at least 100 employees, while 47% oppose it, a Wall Street Journal poll reported this week. Slightly more – 55% -- support vaccination mandates for public safety workers, such as police and firefighters.

Everyone is sick of the pandemic, but it shows no sign of waning. We all need to take responsibility to fight it. To everyone who’s eligible, except those with a legitimate medical excuse: Get your vaccinations and boosters.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.