Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thank God It's (Nearly) Over -- Dec. 29, 2009 column


A New Year’s message from the president on vacation:

“First of all, I wish everybody a Happy New Year. (The new year) is going to be a great year for America. And we will continue to pursue our mission in fighting terror. We'll work hard to make sure our economy rebounds. But most of all, the nation will continue to embrace the culture of compassion…”

It’s only a matter of time before we get Osama bin Laden, the president said. In the new year, we’ll make sure the health-care system works and people will get good jobs.

That was President George W. Bush in Crawford, Tex., on Dec. 31, 2001.

No wonder most Americans believe the 2000s were a bust.

The decade was a “long, hard slog” and not only, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld predicted in 2003, in Afghanistan and Iraq. As we celebrate a new year and begin a new decade, war, terrorism and a troubled economy remain our toughest problems.

We just had a terrorist incident in which the nation’s homeland security system “failed miserably,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano conceded. She first tried to say the system worked fine.

Only the quick-thinking and courageous passengers and crew of Northwest Flight 253 thwarted the alleged plan of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up the Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day. Had the heroes not acted, the 23-year-old Nigerian extremist could have succeeded in killing more than 200 innocents. Despite being on a terrorist watch list, Abdulmuttallab was able to board the flight with explosives sewn in his pants.

The economy seems to be slowly recovering from an historic recession, but millions remain unemployed and millions have lost their homes. As for the culture of compassion Bush lauded, it’s hard to see it in the fog of tea parties and hate talk.

This year started with soaring optimism as peaceful throngs filled the nation’s capital for the inauguration. President Barack Obama promised to bring change to Washington, but the tone has gotten worse. He’s inching ahead on his signature issue, health-care reform, but most people say they no longer want it.

As we enter 2010, crankiness reigns. Only about one person in four has a positive impression of the last decade, according to a Pew Research Center survey taken a few weeks ago. Asked what word best describes the 2000s, people said “downhill,” along with poor, decline, chaotic, disaster, scary and depressing.

But wait. All is not lost. Here’s a glimmer of, uh, hope amid the gloom. We aren’t giving up. The resilience of the American people is showing through.

Nearly six in 10 Americans believe the next decade will be better, the Pew survey found.

People like some of the technological and social changes of the 00s. They see cell phones, e-mail and the Internet as changes for the better. They approve of the country’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity.

Curiously, although reality TV shows are very popular, more than 60 percent say reality TV is the decade’s biggest social change for the worse.

Here’s something else to be glad about. The FBI reports that violent crime is down. Preliminary figures indicate that murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault declined about 4 percent nationwide from January to June of this year from a year earlier. Despite the recession, property crimes – burglary, theft and motor vehicle thefts – were down 6 percent nationally.

Some analysts say the decline may be because the population is aging, and oldsters commit fewer crimes. In Washington, D.C., where the murder rate is at a 45-year low, the chief of police said the police are getting more tips by text message, so they’re able to investigate and solve crimes more quickly.

So, be glad that we’re finished with the dismal decade, a.k.a. the awful aughts. We’re all getting older, and we have cell phones. Happy New Year.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What Makes a 'Smart' Meter so Smart?

'Smart' electrical meters are the next big thing. President Obama has set a goal of installing 40 million over the next few years. What are they and will they save you money?

Check out my story in AARP Bulletin Today and let me know what you think.
-- Marsha

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Politicians at the moat -- Dec. 22, 2009 column


As if people weren’t cynical enough about politicians, Great Britain and the United States have had a year that accentuated the negative.

In Britain, the Telegraph newspaper has regaled readers for months with tales of high-living Members of Parliament and the lavish personal expenses they’ve billed to taxpayers.

A former Conservative Cabinet member deliciously named Douglas Hogg billed his countrymen for “having the moat cleared, piano tuned and stable lights fixed at his country manor house,” the Telegraph reported.

My favorite is Sir Peter Viggers, a 25-year Member of Parliament, whose invoices included nearly $48,000 in gardening expenses and $4,000 for a floating duck house on a pond at his estate. This, as you guessed, is no ordinary duck shelter. It’s nearly 5-feet high and designed to look like an 18th century Swedish building, according to the Telegraph.

Compared with such extravagances, the mini-scandal that has enlivened the Senate health-care debate seems Puritanical.

Democratic senators negotiated secret side deals for their votes on health-care reform, and Republicans accused them of taxpayer-funded bribery and corruption. But the Americans have no smoking moat.

So far, it appears that the Democrats’ intention with their private deals was to improve the lives of their constituents through better health care.

To be sure, the Senate leadership’s need to secure 60 votes to pass health-care reform made the bargaining unsavory, but it’s hardly news that members of Congress work hard to bring home the bacon. Republicans also have had their snouts in the trough over the years.

Still, after the last presidential election with all the talk about change in Washington, it’s disappointing to watch Democrats’ full-throated defense of business as usual.

“Every senator uses whatever leverage they have to help their states,” David Axelrod, top campaign strategist for Barack Obama and now a senior White House adviser, said Sunday on CNN. “That’s the way is has been. That’s the way it will always be.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested that senators who failed to win a goodie or two for their constituents were negligent.

“There are 100 senators here, and I don’t know that there’s a senator that doesn’t have something in this bill that isn’t important to them,” Reid told reporters. “If they don’t have something in it important to them, then it doesn’t speak well of them.”

You had to feel sorry for freshman Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado who confessed on the Senate floor that he hadn’t gotten a thing for his state and was going to vote for health-care reform anyway.

This doesn’t inspire confidence. Last month, Gallup reported that 55 percent of Americans believe the honesty and ethical standards of “members of Congress” were low or very low. That survey, taken before news broke about the special deals, also found that senators fared slightly better, with 49 percent of Americans saying senators had low or very low ethical standards.

Americans hate the idea that a powerful senator can get special treatment for his state, paid for by the rest of us. Congressional earmarks supposedly were banned. But if special projects live, we need full disclosure of who is seeking what.

Many people criticized Sen. Ben Nelson’s deal to get Nebraska a free ride on a nationwide expansion of Medicaid. But if taxpayers are going to pay for something parochial, it’s better that it’s health care for poor people than a “bridge to nowhere.”

Among other deals: A health-care facility was proposed for an unnamed state where there is only one public medical and dental school. Sen. Chris Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, owned up to writing the measure and said he hoped Connecticut would qualify. He also insisted, perhaps disingenuously, that the state would have to compete for the money.

Under another, Medicare coverage would be extended to victims of asbestos poisoning, which Sen. Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, explained, benefits the people of Libby, Mont., who have been sickened by dust from a vermiculite mine.

In Britain, Sir Peter of the duck house says he always followed the rules, but he’s not standing for re-election. Many others caught in the expenses scandal are bowing out.

Here, Republicans will use the special deals against Democrats in the 2010 congressional elections.

Whoever wins, though, we need full disclosure of the special projects formerly known as earmarks. Some things don’t change.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Health-care reform in prose, not poetry -- Dec. 17, 2009 column


Leave it to the sausage-makers in Washington to labor for months and produce a hot dog nobody wants.

Once hungry for meaty health-care reform, many Americans have lost their appetite for the junk food the Senate is concocting. A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll released Thursday found that 44 percent of those surveyed now favor keeping the current health-care system, and 41 percent favor passing an overhaul.

In March, as President Barack Obama launched reform with a forum at the White House, nearly three-fourths of Americans supported government efforts to remake the health-care system, polls reported. What happened?

The heart of the problem is that Obama lost the war of words. Remember what former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo said, “We campaign in poetry. We govern in prose.”

Candidate Obama made many people eager for health-care reform with populist poetry about universal coverage, more choices, lower costs and an open process of drafting reform.

Here’s Obama at a town hall in Chester, Va., in August 2008, "I'm going to have all the negotiations around a big table. We'll have doctors and nurses and hospital administrators. Insurance companies, drug companies -- they'll get a seat at the table, they just won't be able to buy every chair.

“But what we will do is, we'll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN, so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies. And so, that approach, I think is what is going to allow people to stay involved in this process," he said.

The reality was far different. After the televised kick-off event, reform negotiations moved to back rooms. That gave Obama’s foes plenty of time to warn about a government takeover of health care, socialism and death panels. Summer brought vociferous critics to congressional town hall meetings. And just this month, a few cranky senators dictated substantial changes that turned off progressives.

Gone from the Senate bill are universal coverage, cost-containment measures and lower drug prices through importation. A public option or another plan to compete with the insurance companies? Nope. Allowing those 55 and over to buy into Medicare? That’s gone too.

Obama was determined not to be Bill Clinton, who presented a fully formed health-care plan that critics picked apart, that he failed to stake out essentials for Congress to include in a final bill. Obama wanted bipartisan support, but Republicans rebuffed him.

The thorniest issue was always cost. Obama said he could pay for the overhaul without raising taxes for anyone making less than $250,000. This led to a vague plan to cut $500 billion from Medicare – without, he said, harming seniors’ medical care.

Many seniors didn’t believe it possible, and congressional Republicans ratcheted up fear with talk of rationing and pulling the plug on grandma.

Progressives and liberals were enraged when Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., demanded an end to the public option and the Medicare buy-in provision.

Howard Dean wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post Thursday, “I know health reform when I see it, and there isn’t much left in the Senate bill.”

Dean, a former governor of Vermont, presidential candidate and Democratic national chairman, wants Congress to start over.

But if Obama could not make the case this year that the country would be better off after reform, it’s hard to see how a delay would help the argument.

“We are on the precipice” of health-care change, he said after a meeting with Senate Democrats at the White House the other day. His critics gleefully agreed that the country is on a cliff, about to leap into the abyss.

Obama signaled he’s also ready to use fear, warning in an interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson that if Congress fails to act, individual premiums will rise, employers will drop coverage and “the federal government will go bankrupt.”

The Senate may yet pass something. A Senate-House conference committee could restore some of the meaty provisions in a compromise bill and send it to the White House. Obama will declare an historic victory. He’ll tout the triumph in his State of the Union address.

But he’ll be speaking in prose, not poetry.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Getting the holiday spirit -- Dec. 10, 2009 column


A doo-wop quartet sang in Washington’s Metro Center subway station the other day, enlivening the daily commute and picking up a little extra cash.

“Why do fools fall in love?” the men sang, slapping their chests and clapping to the beat. Most of the passengers, accustomed to such performers, kept their distance and averted their eyes. Some even turned their backs as they waited for the train.

But a man in a wheelchair rolled close to enjoy the show. He nodded in time to the music.

A man in a good wool coat and polished shoes strode up, dropped some coins for the singers and handed the man in the wheelchair a dollar bill. The recipient frowned and shrugged as if to say no, he wasn’t asking. Then he pocketed the stranger’s gift and smiled.

It was a warm moment in a city that’s not known for its heart.

The holiday season is its own gift, a reminder of what’s important in life. Most of the year, especially in tough times like these, we tend to get wrapped up in our own struggles. Then, suddenly, something happens to remind us that individual acts of kindness do count. Little things can make a difference.

At the White House, the holiday theme is “Reflect, Rejoice, Renew.” Some 800 ornaments from previous administrations went to community groups around the country to be redecorated with favorite local landmarks and returned to adorn the Christmas trees. The 18-foot Douglas fir in the Blue Room has LED lights.

If the theme and decorations are low key, though, the Obamas are hardly stinting on holiday cheer. This year’s gingerbread White House is a 56-inch by 29-inch behemoth, reportedly weighing in at 390 pounds. That’s 140 pounds of cake and 250 pounds of white chocolate icing.

The president and first lady sent a couple of hundred thousand cards that read “Season’s Greetings” and “May your family have a joyous holiday season and a new year blessed with hope and happiness.” There was no mention of Christmas and no Bible verse, as was the practice of George W. Bush.

The Obamas are welcoming 50,000 guests at holiday parties, which White House aides say is about the same number as in previous years. First lady Michelle Obama announced that White House employees are supporting local food banks and the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program.

Last year, Toys for Tots distributed shiny, new toys to 7.6 million children in 650 communities nationwide. I was surprised to learn that the Marines won’t accept military- or firearm-themed toys. No toy guns, not even ones that squirt water. The Toys for Tots Web site notes that gifts of books, games and sports equipment “make a significant contribution to the educational, social and recreational interests of these children.”

The White House has launched a “Feed a Neighbor” program on serve.gov, which includes information on how to participate locally and a downloadable anti-hunger tool kit.

These measures come as charitable giving is down. Two-thirds of public charities reported decreases in donations last year, according to the Giving USA report released in June. The overall decline was small, however, about 2 percent less than in 2007. Charities report greater demand for food, housing and other help.

The recession, swine flu and concerns about drunk driving and sexual harassment have dampened corporate holiday spirits around the country. Many companies are cutting back on holiday parties this year. Still, about 62 percent of companies plan holiday parties, according to a survey by the Challenger, Gray & Christmas consulting firm. That’s down from 77 percent of companies having parties last year and 90 percent in 2007.

In the nation’s capital, some companies and associations are saving money with holiday pot luck dinners or going for happy hour instead of a restaurant lunch or dinner. Some have switched from Secret Santa presents in the office to Toys for Tots donations.

The Wall Street Journal’s wsj.com reported on creative ways some companies are rewarding employees in the post-bonus world. Executives at the Proforma Support Center in Cleveland have promised to clean the snow off all 100 employees’ vehicles at least once a month this winter. The executives also treating employees to breakfast weekly.

At Metro Center, I got on the train and turned back to see the quartet still singing. The man in the wheelchair lingered, enjoying the music.

(c)2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Put troops first -- Dec. 3, 2009 column


What’s wrong with this picture? The commander in chief orders 30,000 more troops to war in Afghanistan, and the nation is riveted on a couple of glittery White House party-crashers.

But not entirely. We’re also gripped by a golfer’s extramarital adventures. The day after President Obama’s televised speech, a cable TV network invited viewers to answer this urgent question: Do you accept Tiger Woods’ apology?

And in the nation’s capital, where it’s always about who’s up and who’s down, pundits debate the implications of Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy on next year’s congressional elections.

President Kennedy had it right. Life is unfair.

Fair would be turning first to the men and women in uniform and their families who sacrifice to keep us safe. Fair would be saying thank you to troops for going yet another extra mile. Fair would find everybody on the home front pitching in to try to lessen the burden for those who serve.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that we’re in tough times, and many people have lost their jobs and homes. We all know life is unfair, and everybody needs a break. Few morsels are as delicious as the foibles of the rich and famous. I get why the top search word on Google the other day was “transgressions,” which Tiger Woods used in his online apology. That so many wanted to know the definition would be funny -- if it weren’t a sad commentary on our priorities.

We need to remember what’s important. The disconnect between civilian and military life occurs partly because we have an all-volunteer force. Only one-half of 1 percent of Americans serve in the military. With such a small group bearing so heavy a burden, it’s easy – unless you live near a military base -- to live as if the nation were at peace.

Meanwhile, tired troops endure multiple, revolving deployments, and families wait and worry at home. Sadly, they’re used to it. Life is unfair.

Wondering about the context of Kennedy’s remark, I found the transcript of a March 1962 presidential news conference. A reporter asked JFK about protests by military reservists who had been mobilized during the Berlin crisis the previous fall and were eager to be released.

“There is always inequity in life. Some men are killed in a war and some men are wounded, and some men never leave the country, and some men are stationed in the Antarctic and some are stationed in San Francisco,” the president said. “It's very hard in military or in personal life to assure complete equality. Life is unfair.”

More than four decades later, military morale is suffering and suicides of active-duty personnel are up for the fifth straight year. The additional troops will head into harm’s way in a war that’s supported by less than half the people.

Fifty-two percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup last month said they thought the cost of the war in Afghanistan in money and lives was not worth it. People were split on whether it would be better to draw down troops (45 percent said yes) or add more troops (46 percent).

Obama tried to rally support by evoking the country’s unity when the war in Afghanistan started, “bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack, and by the determination to defend our homeland and the values we hold dear.”

He said, “I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again. I believe with every fiber of my being that we – as Americans – can still come together behind a common purpose.” He’s still an optimist.

His new approach of sending at least 30,000 more troops next year and beginning to withdraw troops in July 2111 is getting kicked from the left and the right. Some Democrats argue we should send no more troops, while Republicans argue that the 18-month timeline to begin withdrawal is too soon and tips our hand.

Rarely mentioned, however, are the men and women who will obey the orders and risk their lives for us. They won’t rake in a fortune or fame or live a luxurious lifestyle. Life is unfair. We owe them.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Hey, kids, go play -- Nov. 24, 2009 column


President Barack Obama is sending a message to the millions of American young people who sit on the couch and watch football on TV: Go outside and play.

The president appears in a new public service announcement throwing a football around the South Lawn of the White House with three National Football League players and some local children. The PSA is slated to run during football games over the holiday weekend and the rest of the season.

Obama is drawing attention to the NFL’s PLAY 60 campaign, a project to fight childhood obesity by encouraging kids to get active for 60 minutes a day. Adults can participate through the United We Serve volunteer program.

The idea seems absurd that the president needs to tell kids play is good, but it’s nothing new. Presidents since Dwight Eisenhower have been trying to get Americans off the couch.

In 1953, with American families settling into cozy, car-centered suburbs, a study found that American children lagged far behind those in Austria, Italy and Switzerland in physical fitness. Eisenhower was also concerned that many draftees were too physically unfit to serve in the military. Surely the former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in World War II could nip that troublesome trend.

Alas, he put his vice president, Richard Nixon, in charge of developing a plan to encourage fitness.

In December 1960, president-elect John Kennedy took the unprecedented step of announcing a new policy even before he was inaugurated. The crucial issue? Physical fitness.

In an article titled “The Soft American” in Sports Illustrated, Kennedy warned that Americans were neglecting their bodies and getting soft, and that was a menace to national security. He outlined a four-point plan to get people active. The ambitious effort would include a new White House office, the nation’s governors and federal departments.

“We do not want our children to be a generation of spectators,” JFK wrote. “Rather we want each of them to be a participant in the vigorous life.”

When he learned that Theodore Roosevelt had challenged Marine officers to walk 50 miles in 20 hours, Kennedy challenged the White House staff to a 50-mile hike. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was game and walked the 50 miles -- in leather oxford shoes. Inspired, some Americans took up walking, but the fad soon faded.

Check out www.fitness.gov for more history, a fitness test and guidelines for getting fit.

Every president takes a swing at improving fitness. And yet, we sink farther into the couch. Sixty-six million Americans are overweight or obese.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that obesity among children has doubled since 1980 and has tripled for those 12 to 19. One in three children in the United States is overweight or obese, first lady Michelle Obama tells audiences.

Childhood obesity is important as Congress struggles to reform the nation’s health system. Overweight teens are more at risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart trouble and other adult diseases.

The Obamas have made fighting childhood obesity a priority, starting with the White House vegetable garden. They promote fitness and visit schools to shine the media spotlight on healthy food choices. Change, however, will take more than a nudge from the White House.

Many school systems have gone in the wrong direction, cutting recess and physical education. School cafeterias have improved meals but they need to do more. The 30.5 million lunches and 10.1 million breakfasts served daily are balanced but contain too much salt and fat and too many calories, the Institute of Medicine cautioned. Its study recommended serving only low-fat or fat-free milk, requiring more orange and dark green vegetables and setting an upper limit on calories per meal.

Still, school meals are a better choice than the fare at a la carte food lines, vending machines, snack bars and school stores with which meals compete.

Congress is holding hearings in preparation for reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act. Some senators want the government to regulate all foods sold in schools. But food is big business.

The food and beverage industry spends about $10 billion to $12 billion a year on advertising targeted to children, according to the Institute of Medicine.

Even milk is a battleground. Dairy trade groups are spending upwards of a million dollars in a media campaign to defend chocolate milk, the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday. Three fifth-graders in Barrington, Ill., joined the battle after their school system banned flavored milk from elementary and middle-school menus.

The children persuaded the schools to serve the treat on Fridays because children weren’t drinking the white milk. The kids were bringing sugary drinks from home. Officials say they’ll decide after January if the benefits of calcium and Vitamin D are worth the extra three teaspoons of sugar per half pint, the Times reported.

Maybe the kids could keep drinking the chocolate milk if they run outside and play.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

49 million hungry Americans? Not exactly - Nov. 19, 2009 column


As Americans planned their Thanksgiving feasts, some news organizations reported that 49 million Americans went hungry last year. The news was shocking, disturbing -- and exaggerated.

The news stories misstated the findings of a federal report on the nation’s food problems, but the facts are bad enough. It’s hard for millions of Americans to put food on their tables, and the situation is getting worse even though some say the recession is easing.

Here’s what the late radio personality Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story,” based on a closer reading of the report on Household Food Security in 2008 and other documents released Monday by the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service.

First, you need to know that hunger doesn’t exist in Uncle Sam’s America. I’ll explain shortly.

But 17.3 million people – not 49.1 million -- lived in households with “very low food security,” an increase of 4 percent from 2007, according to the report. Very low food security means at least one person in the household ate less or did not eat all day at times during the year because of limited or uncertain access to food.

For the richest country on Earth to have almost 6 percent of all households -- 12.1 million adults and 5.2 million children – in such precarious straits, is, as President Barack Obama said of the report, unsettling.

So where did the figure of 49.1 million people – and as at least one online site erroneously reported 49 million households – come from?

The survey found that 85 percent of American households were “food secure” in 2008, which the government defines as having “access at all times to enough food for an active health life for all household members.”

The remaining 15 percent of households – 49.1 million people -- were “food insecure,” a broad term that encompasses a range of experience from being worried about getting enough food all the way to skipping meals and losing weight. The ranks of food insecure households increased 11 percent from 2007.

“Hunger rose significantly last year,” President Obama said in a statement. Not exactly.

The federal government stopped using the word hunger in 2006 after a two-year study of the methodology and language of food surveys by a panel of the National Academies of Science. The panel concluded that hunger is an individual, physiological condition that may result from household food insecurity. Food insecurity occurs when someone in a household has limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

The government divided food insecurity households into “low food secure” and “very low food secure.” Those with low food security are able to get enough food through federal food programs and community food pantries to avoid disrupting family eating patterns or missing meals. About 9 percent of households experienced low food security, an increase of 7 percent in one year.

Those with very low food security fall through holes in the safety net. Lacking the money or other resources for food, they’re forced to change their consumption. Normal eating patterns are disrupted and some people experience hunger.

The government says that children are usually protected from hunger even in households with very low food security, because moms will do just about anything to keep their kids from going hungry. Even so, in about 500,000 families in 2008, one child or more had to eat less, skip meals or go whole days without food.

This is unacceptable. Congress is working on reauthorizing federal Child Nutrition Programs, with an expansion of summer feeding programs. Obama proposed $10 billion in additional funding over 10 years.

My guess about the news coverage is that reporters and editors were strapped for time and grabbed the top-line number. They failed to decode the terms the government uses. Unfortunately, Uncle Sam has made it nearly impossible for ordinary people to understand the scope of the problem.

We know that hunger by any name would be worse without the heroic efforts of local food banks and other emergency food programs. They’re stretched thin. We need to support them and not just during the holidays.

Happy Thanksgiving.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Obama goes to China -- Nov. 12, 2009 column


When President Richard Nixon left the White House for his historic trip to China, he addressed about 1,500 cheering school children and thousands of administration officials and federal workers who thronged the South Lawn.

The departure ceremony on Feb. 17, 1972, was broadcast live on radio and TV. The New York Times reported that first lady Pat Nixon wore a full-length blond mink coat as she followed her husband to the waiting helicopter.

These days, Americans are nothing if not blasé about presidential travel.

When President Barack Obama left Thursday for his weeklong trip to Asia, the big news was that the parents of the “balloon boy” would plead guilty to charges stemming from the publicity stunt.

It may seem unremarkable that Obama is on the road. With this, his eighth foreign trip as president, he will set a record for the most countries visited by a president in his first year – 20. Michelle Obama stayed home this time.

Nixon’s send-off was over the top because Nixon loved pomp, and because he was the first president to visit China.

“This is the week that changed the world!” he declared at the end of his visit.

This is Obama’s first trip to China. The White House is downplaying expectations for tangible results of the trip. And yet, it is significant that Obama once again is reminding the world that he’s not George W. Bush and that America’s worldview has shifted.

“The overarching theme is that America is a Pacific nation,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

Obama, who was born in Hawaii and lived in Indonesia as a child, is the first president with “an Asia-Pacific orientation,” Rhodes said, and “he understands that the future of our prosperity and our security is very much tied to this part of the world."

For most of our history, a Europe- and Atlantic-centric notion of America prevailed. The Asia-Pacific tilt reflects 21st century reality. China and Japan hold $800 billion and $731 billion in U.S. debt respectively. Our economic future and theirs are intertwined. Trade, currency values, global warming and security issues call for candid discussions.

Obama’s travels are not a sign of his “wanderlust,” said Jeffrey Bader, senior director for East Asian affairs with the National Security Council. Instead, they reflect an international agenda -- wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, climate change and the worldwide economic crisis – that is no less daunting than the domestic one.

The president also believes that "it is essential to restore American leadership, influence, image, and standing in a world where all have suffered in recent years," Bader said.

Obama’s visits to Japan, China, Singapore and South Korea come as he may be more popular there than here. The Pew Global Attitudes Project asked people worldwide last spring if they were confident that Obama will do the right thing in world affairs.

In China, 62 percent of those surveyed said they were confident Obama would do the right thing, compared with just 30 percent who had been confident about President George W. Bush last year. In Japan, Obama had an 85 percent confidence rating, while Bush had only 25 percent last year. In Indonesia, Obama had the confidence of 71 percent of those surveyed, compared with Bush’s 23 percent.

Besides making speeches, meeting with presidents and prime ministers and participating in the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Obama will attend a state dinner with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing. In Seoul, he and South Korea President Lee Myung-bak have scheduled a news conference.

Details are being worked out for a town-hall style meeting with students in Shanghai. The White House wants to build on the good feelings young Chinese have for Obama.

A professor of English at Shanghai International Studies University wrote recently that this is the first time in his 18 years in China that he has seen T-shirts for sale with the image of a U.S. president. Pirated DVDs of Obama’s speeches and print editions of his books are also for sale on the street, Mark C. Eades wrote on the Christian Science Monitor’s csmonitor.com.

Obama may not change the world in a week, as Nixon proclaimed he had, but Obama is sending the message that the United States intends to compete in Asia and remain a leader on the world stage.

Speaking of which, the president won’t need to put away his suitcase when he returns. He is expected to travel to Oslo next month to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Now's time to end homelessness for veterans -- Nov. 5, 2009 column


One winter morning a couple of years ago, I was shoveling snow that had fallen overnight when someone said, “I could do that for you.”

He politely introduced himself as Ziggy and said a neighbor sent him. Ziggy was solidly built, not young, wearing a shabby jacket with no scarf, hat or gloves. He wasn’t seeking pity or a handout. He wanted work. He told me he was a veteran, and I handed him the shovel.

Ziggy made quick work of the snow. He said he was a master gardener and would be back in the spring to help with yard work. He walked down the street, and I figured that was the last I’d see of him.

Sure enough, though, when spring showed up, so did Ziggy.

He pruned and weeded and sent me with to the home store with a list. Leaning on a rake, he told me he’d grown up in a foster family and after high school joined the Army, where he’d learned gardening. When he came home, he’d started a landscaping business. He had plenty of work for a while and even hired a couple of guys.

What else clouded Ziggy’s prospects I don’t know, but when someone stole his truck with his landscaping equipment, Ziggy wound up on foot, without a livelihood, living on the street.

He joined about 131,000 of the nation’s 24 million veterans who are homeless on any given night, according to Department of Veterans Affairs. About 260,000 vets are homeless each year, the VA estimates.

Homeless veterans are not a new phenomenon. Historians say there were homeless vets after the American Revolution. The VA provides offers a range of benefits and services, and presidents always promise to do more.

What’s new this Veterans Day is that VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said he and President Obama are personally committed to ending homelessness among veterans within five years. Ending as in eradicating, not just reducing.

Shinseki announced the goal Tuesday at a summit on homeless veterans. He stressed that for the first time the government’s aim was not just to rescue homeless vets from the streets but to prevent homelessness.

“No one who has ever served this nation as veterans should ever be living on the streets,” Shinseki declared.

He pledged $3.2 billion next year to fight homelessness among vets. The lion’s share -- $2.7 billion – will go toward expanding health care for vets, especially mental health and substance abuse treatment. About $500 million will be used for homeless programs.

The VA works with more than 600 community organizations around the country to provide transitional housing for 20,000 vets, and it will work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide permanent housing for more than 20,000 vets and their families.

The new Post-9/11 GI bill will enable qualified veterans go to state colleges and universities tuition-free, a major step toward avoiding homelessness, Shinseki said. The VA will expand efforts to help vets who start small businesses and will work with the Small Business Administration to ensure that veteran-owned companies are in line to compete for federal contracts.

The comprehensive push comes as the trend for homeless veterans is improving. The estimate of homeless vets has declined from about 195,000 six years ago. The concern is that if nothing new is done during these tough economic times, the number of homeless veterans could increase 10 percent to 15 percent over the next five years, Shinseki said.

Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are about 3 percent of the homeless vet population, but they are becoming homeless faster than vets of previous conflicts, studies by veterans’ groups show. Vets of Iraq and Afghanistan fall into homelessness within 18 months.

Shinseki’s plan includes expanding housing options for vets and improving discharge plans for vets who have been incarcerated. A national referral center will help vets and their families locate local social service providers.

Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff in the Bush administration, is getting high marks from veterans groups. We all can hope his plan succeeds.

The last time I saw Ziggy, a chill was in the air and days were getting shorter. He put the garden to bed for the winter and told me he was heading to Florida, where he thought he could find gardening work year round. I hope he found his home in the sun.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A year later, Michelle wins -- Oct. 29, 2009 column


In the year since her husband was elected president, Michelle Obama has become a surprise hit.

Barack Obama swept to victory on a high tide of optimism and good feeling, but as reality set in and Obama battled for his ambitious agenda, the tide receded. Michelle Obama, though, has triumphed over campaign critics who blasted her as angry and unpatriotic. She has become one of the country’s sunniest and most popular women.

Her popularity now surpasses his.

Michelle Obama is viewed favorably by 61 percent of Americans, while her husband’s favorability stands at 55 percent, according to the latest USA Today-Gallup poll. Perhaps more telling, only 25 percent view her unfavorably while 42 percent see the president unfavorably.

While his personal popularity in the mid-50s is still healthy, Obama’s policies may be losing strength. Slightly more than half -- 51 percent – say they disagree with him on issues most important to them, a new CNN-Opinion Research poll reports.

He of course is tackling the hard work of Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy, climate change and health-insurance reform.

Michelle Obama, 45, a Princeton and Harvard law grad, so far has avoided policy disputes. She dubbed herself “mom in chief,” allaying fears she would become a policy wonk. She focuses on worthy -- and safe – topics, including nutrition, health, education and military families.

The Obamas’ personal life continues to captivate many Americans. Unlike other political couples, the Obamas are affectionate in public and seem to like each other. They talked openly about their marriage, including its “bumps,” for a Nov. 1 New York Times Magazine article. Their daughters are adorable and not over-exposed. In photos, Malia and Sasha are almost always with a parent.

Mostly, Michelle Obama seems comfortable in her own skin and to enjoy life in the White House. During a children’s health fair on the South Lawn, she ran an obstacle course and tried jumping rope double-dutch and hula hooping. She reportedly kept the hula hoop going for 142 hip swivels.

"We don't just want our kids to exercise because we tell them to. We want them to exercise because it's fun and they enjoy it,” she said.

She appeared by satellite on “The Jay Leno Show” the other night and displayed her recall of childhood TV by rattling off the names of the kids from The Brady Bunch. She said a birthday party for first dog Bo on the South Lawn treated him to a cake made of veal. Fun times.

Fun is not something we naturally associate with first ladies. They have projects. Laura Bush, like her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, promoted literary. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign fought drug abuse. Hillary Clinton took on overhauling health care – and bombed.

Michelle Obama has talked about health-care reform but not much. During the campaign, she deployed to military bases to meet with servicemen and their families. Her trip Wednesday to New York with Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, for the opening game of the World Series also highlighted the military. The two stopped by a Veterans Affairs’ Medical Center in the Bronx to greet patients and staff as part of Major League Baseball’s new “Welcome Back Veterans” campaign.

“We owe [veterans] for what they’ve done for us,” Michelle Obama said. “Let’s be more aware of these heroes in our midst.” Even the harshest Obama haters couldn’t object to that.

A news story about her VA hospital visit ran at the bottom of page C7 of Thursday’s Washington Post. As much as news has changed, some things haven’t. A president’s actions get front-page coverage, while his wife lands softly in the features section. Even in the 21st Century, a first lady doesn’t want to make hard news too often.

Her legendary toned arms changed fashion. Her White House garden made people think more about what they eat. Next, she may change dating. She’ll be featured on the December cover of Glamour magazine wearing a sleeveless red cocktail dress and in its pages giving tips on dating. She’s already graced the cover of Vogue. A new book, “Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy,” is based on a blog that follows her fashions, mrs-o.org.

The president reportedly quotes her in Oval Office meetings. Michelle Obama has signaled she wants to do more with social issues, particularly childhood obesity. It will be worth watching whether she sticks to safe topics in the next year or ventures farther afield, risking her popularity.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Insured but not covered -- Oct. 22, 2009 column


Catherine Howard was 29 and an independent, documentary filmmaker in San Francisco when she found a health insurance policy she thought perfect for a healthy, young person.

It was affordable – only $140 a month – and Howard figured the most she’d need would be stitches after a snowboarding mishap.

Unfortunately, she was wrong. A diagnosis of breast cancer brought surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, which left her too weak to work full-time. Under her insurance policy, Howard wound up owing $40,000 in medical bills – more than twice her yearly income – and another $60,000 in living expenses and other bills.

Howard put the bills on her credit card, thinking, “`If I don’t die, I will just deal with this later,’” she told a House panel last week that is investigating underinsurance. “I didn’t die, and this is later,” she said.

Howard refuses to declare bankruptcy. Rather than saving money for a down payment on a house or buying a car, she’s paying off her bills month by month.

Her diligence is commendable, of course. But it raises a troubling question: Should Americans be forced into financial ruin because they get sick?

The focus of health-care reform originally was the 46 million who lack insurance, but the current system has a myriad of other flaws. Many who buy health insurance are subject to the odious practice by insurance companies of canceling coverage for people once they get sick – antiseptically called rescission. Others are denied coverage because of preexisting conditions.

And, there are the under-insured -- people like Catherine Howard, whose insurance is woefully inadequate because of high deductibles and co-pays.

As Congress considers mandating that everyone purchase health insurance as part of reform, some warn that the prescription could make the system worse by expanding the ranks of the under-insured. Low-income people could be forced into cheap insurance plans with huge gaps in coverage.

Congress could help by limiting out-of-pocket expenses and banning junk policies. The real solution – universal health coverage – is not even on the table, even though the rest of the industrialized world has such coverage.

That’s why news this week that a public option isn’t dead offered a glimmer of hope.

The Congressional Budget Office found a Democratic plan containing what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls a “more robust” public option might actually reduce the federal deficit. These preliminary estimates were based on a plan to tie reimbursement rates for doctors to current Medicare rates, plus a 5 percent increase.

It’s far from certain that Congress will create a government-run health insurance plan to compete with private insurers. Some critics complain that could lead to a single-payer system as people flock to a public plan and abandon private insurers. Others say costs will be on borne by seniors through cuts in Medicare. We shouldn’t have to rob one group to help another.

President Obama has said repeatedly he won’t add to the deficit and he prefers to build on the current insurance-based system.

Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, a professor at Harvard Medical School, is among those who believe the insurance-based model is broken and can’t be fixed. She co-founded Physicians for a National Health Program in 1986. The 17,000-member group supports a single-payer system -- “Medicare for all” -- which it says could be paid for with $350 billion a year saved by eliminating insurance administrative costs.

Woolhandler also works with the Cambridge Health Alliance, which recently produced a study that found 62 percent of all bankruptcies in the United States are due in part to medical illness and bills.

That study has been criticized because of its methodology, but even if 62 percent is high, medical bankruptcies are a uniquely American phenomenon.

Ours is the only country in the industrialized world that refuses its citizens universal health care, author and journalist T.R. Reid found in researching his book, “The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care.”

Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., has introduced a single-payer bill in Congress. It has 88 cosponsors and is languishing in committee. Nobody wants to touch it.

Five years after her diagnosis, Catherine Howard is a cancer survivor. She’s also uninsurable on the individual market because of her pre-existing condition. Fortunately, she has an employer who provides health insurance. She’s one of the lucky ones. We can do better.

(c)2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Slinging mud to win votes -- Oct. 15, 2009 column


Many political analysts see the races for governor in Virginia and New Jersey as a referendum on President Obama and his policies.

Maybe so, but the Nov. 3 elections are also a test of old-fashioned negative campaigning. Obama won both states last year on a message of hope, but the gubernatorial campaigns in the Old Dominion and Garden State have been mud-fests.

In New Jersey, Republican challenger Chris Christie held a double-digit lead in the polls over incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine until Corzine let loose an intensely negative ad campaign.

One Corzine TV ad mocks Christie for being obese. A narrator says, “Christie threw his weight around as U.S. attorney and got off easy.” Video footage shows the heavily built Christie getting out of an SUV in slow motion.

“Corzine Points a Spotlight at his Rival’s Waistline,” said a headline in The New York Times. Writing in Newsweek’s The Gaggle blog, Holly Bailey asked the pertinent (or impertinent) question: “Is Christie too fat to be the next governor of New Jersey?”

Corzine’s campaign denied it was targeting Christie’s appearance – wink, wink.

The contest between Corzine, who literally has been running in races most weekends, and Christie is now a dead heat, with independent Chris Daggett far behind. Daggett recently won the endorsement of the state’s largest newspaper. Svelte Obama will be campaigning with Corzine Wednesday.

In Virginia, Democrat Creigh Deeds also gone negative, hammering for weeks on a graduate thesis that Republican Robert F. “Bob” McDonnell wrote 20 years ago. While studying at the university founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, McDonnell criticized working women as detrimental to the family, disparaged gays and said religion should influence public policy.

While it’s certainly fair for Deeds to hold his opponent accountable for his written views, Deeds seemed to have little else in his campaign playbook. Many Democrats have urged him to adopt a more positive message and talk more about where he’ll lead the state.

Deeds, though, keeps hitting McDonnell. One TV ad questions whether McDonnell, who grew up in Alexandria, has abandoned his roots.

"Bob McDonnell says he's from Fairfax County," the voiceover says, "But that was before he attended Pat Robertson's law school."

McDonnell’s lead has shrunk, but he’s still ahead in the polls. He responded effectively with sunny ads, including one that features his daughter who led a Army platoon in Iraq. Another ad shows prominent women praising McDonnell.

Perhaps the lowest moment in Virginia came when a supporter of McDonnell made fun of Deeds’s speech impediment. During a campaign event, Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, mocked Deeds’s stutter. A video of her comments taken by a Deeds campaign worker widely circulated on the Internet for weeks before Johnson apologized, sort of.

“Two weeks ago I made reference to Creigh Deeds’s inability to clearly communicate effective solutions to the serious problems facing Virginia,” Johnson said in a statement. “I shouldn’t have done it in the manner in which I did and for that I apologize for any offense he, or others, may have taken.”

There’s always the potential of a backlash in negative campaigning. Christie has talked a little about his struggle with his weight, and Deeds has referred indirectly to his halting speech. Twice during a televised debate Monday, Deeds said he’s not an eloquent speaker but does speak his mind. He accused McDonnell of being a smooth talker.

Personal attacks remind voters it’s politics as usual at a time when serious economic and social problems demand cooperation. The new voters who flocked to Obama last year were responding to his message that politics could be different. Obama may not have delivered on many of his promises yet, but he hasn’t given up. The grimy gubernatorial battles in Virginia and New Jersey remind voters how little politicians have changed even as the problems facing the country grow worse.

Obama campaigned with Deeds in August, and he’s likely to campaign with him again before Election Day. Just a year ago, Obama became the first Democrat to carry the presidential vote in Virginia since LBJ in 1964. He won by sharing his bright vision, not by slinging mud.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Reality Check: Civics or 'Survivor' -- Oct. 8, 2009 column


There’s reality TV and there’s reality.

Reality TV is Tom DeLay, the Republican former House majority leader, shaking his booty to “Wild Thing” on “Dancing with the Stars.”

Reality is the stress fractures in both feet that forced DeLay to quit dancing. Or reality may be that the Hammer got booted because ratings were dipping faster than his slides across the dance floor.

What’s next, America? Another season of living vicariously through reality TV’s housewives, fashion designers, top models and chefs with attitude?

How about something fresh, local and unscripted – a.k.a. reality?

You could watch real people face challenging situations before a panel of judges in your own hometown for free with no commercials. Anyone can watch local government in action.

I hear you, “Civics over `Survivor?’ No thanks.”

As heretical as it sounds, though, reality is more compelling than reality TV.

The “contestants” in local government proceedings aren’t singers or dancers; they’re neighbors fighting for or against change. The judges aren’t national celebrities; they’re also neighbors, elected or appointed officials with the power to make things happen.

Unlike on reality TV, the decisions of city councils, planning commissions and school boards affect the quality of local life.

To be sure, local government lacks the exotic locales, glitzy stages and dramatic costumes of reality TV shows. And yet, there’s suspense as officials make decisions that affect reality in jobs, education, business, the environment, safety and taxes.

I’m not suggesting that you tune into the local government cable channel and settle down with a bowl of popcorn. Most use fixed cameras that show little but talking heads. Instead check online for a calendar of public meetings and look at the agendas. Many localities also use social networking to connect with citizens.

Then, get off the couch and go to city hall – you do own it. Savor the atmosphere, people rolling their eyes, grumbling. On TV, you may not see that council chambers often are designed like churches – with pews for the citizens and officials seated on a raised platform at the front. What’s that all about?

The other night I was in a city hall in the Virginia suburbs of Washington when I saw a crowd gathering. As a newspaper reporter, I covered many a local government meeting, and crowds indicated the session wouldn’t be dull.

I slipped into the back of a planning commission meeting and watched a classic battle unfold. Should a 7-Eleven be allowed on the ground floor of an upscale condo building?

This is a typical, not-in-my-back-yard issue in cities and towns all over the country.

On one hand, the store would be a convenience for residents and would fill a vacant storefront. Like most 7-Elevens, though, the store would be open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It would sell alcohol until midnight. Many residents were not thanking heaven. They were worried about crime, noise, panhandlers and rowdiness.

The store’s lawyer said 7-Eleven had agreed to provide upscale signage, security cameras and, if needed, a workspace for police.

During public comments, a legally blind man said he now would worry about his safety. A woman with two small children said the store would destroy neighborhood peace. A man who had lived near a 7-Eleven previously said he had felt so unsafe there he’d carried a concealed handgun when he walked his dog at night.

But a fan of the 7-Eleven drew chuckles when she said she works late and sometimes likes food other than the healthy fare sold at the nearby Whole Foods.

A planning commissioner said not everybody is an early riser with small children and these others would appreciate a late snack. She scolded opponents for wrinkling their noses at 7-Eleven, calling them “snobbists.”

The commission approved the store 5 to 1. I joined the unhappy citizens as they crowded into an elevator to leave. Their comments seemed to make no difference to the commissioners, said the mother of two. She was still angry about the snob comment.

Maybe the store won’t be as bad as it seems, I said.

She shook her head. “We’re moving!”

It wasn’t “Survivor.” Civics is reality.

(c)2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Politicians put the hype in hyperbole -- Oct. 1, 2009 column


The tenor of today’s so-called political debate brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s observation, “Nothing succeeds like excess.”

Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., was an obscure freshman until he staged political theater on the House floor Tuesday night. By declaring that the Republican health-care plan is: “Die quickly,” Grayson won a dubious honor. Republican colleagues in the House threatened to bring a resolution of disapproval against him.

And so Grayson joined Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., the Diogenes of Dixie who shouted “You lie” during President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress, in making himself an instant celebrity through an over-the-top remark. Depending on where you stand, the Grayson is either a jerk or a hero. Ditto Wilson.

Wilson apologized to Obama for his outburst and then raised more than a million dollars in campaign funds. Grayson planned his moment down to the printed posters that read, “The Republican Health Care Plan: Die Quickly.” We’ll see how much he rakes in.

Grayson, emboldened by publicity, returned to the House floor the next night to apologize not for his “die quickly” remark but to the 44,000 Americans he said die annually in a contemporary Holocaust because they lack health insurance. He cited a Harvard study on the 44,000; the Holocaust reference was his own.

It’s shameful to invoke the Holocaust in such a context, but hyperbole is the red meat of 24/7 news and opinion cycle. TV, Web sites and blogs are eager for spicy morsels to throw to information-sated audiences. With constant comment everybody’s right and hobby, we risk allowing emotion to triumph over facts and thoughtful argument. It’s easier to lure readers, viewers and clicks with increasingly “extravagant statements made for effect,” the dictionary definition of hyperbole.

This can lead to absurdities like the artificial outrage among some commentators about Obama’s 18-hour trip to Copenhagen to lobby for the 2016 Olympics. Some critics scolded Obama for shirking his duties and the important tasks at hand, such as passing health care reform and shoring up the economy. How could he take his valuable time to gallivant overseas? And yet, many of these critics had complained earlier that the president was overexposed on health care and the economy.

Some critics actually opined that the tragic beating death of a Chicago high school honor student, caught in horrifying detail on a cell phone video and then aired repeatedly in a cynical ploy to grab viewers, was proof the city didn’t deserve the Olympics.

Others went with the old-faithful, character assassination, asking whether White House aide Valerie Jarrett or other Obama “cronies” would benefit personally from having the Olympics in their hometown. No need to wait for a smidge of evidence of corruption before hurling mudballs.

Outrageousness does have its limits. Facebook took down the sickening presidential assassination poll: “Should Obama be killed? Yes. Maybe. If he cuts my health care. No.” The Secret Service reportedly paid a visit to the poll’s author.

But we don’t have to wait for the Secret Service. Each of us can switch TV channels, click away from ersatz indignation on the Web and refuse to buy books by entertainers who are angry, often wrong but never in doubt.

In the 1996 presidential campaign, Bob Dole went around the country listing the Clinton administration’s transgressions, which he said the news media were ignoring.

“Where’s the outrage? Where’s the outrage?” the Republican presidential candidate implored, unable to ignite the damp wood of the electorate. These days, people get fired up five times before breakfast. Is this healthy for democracy?

Everybody wants to point out that the emperor wears no clothes and win the love of a grateful people.
These days, though, we’re on outrage overload.

In the past, a politician who wanted to get people’s attention might write a book to indicate seriousness of purpose. Today, he vents his fury by lobbing verbal grenades.

Grayson has called Rush Limbaugh a “hypocrite loser” and a “sorry excuse for a human being.” Grayson’s berating Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke in congressional hearings are enshrined on YouTube.

Today, the more ingenious and the more preposterous the attack, the more likely the attacker is to be plucked from obscurity for his 15 seconds of fame. And that’s not hyperbole.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Congs' health care need not be superior to ours -- Sept. 24, 2009 column


A reader in Alabama fired off an e-mail telling me in no uncertain terms that he’s against the federal government meddling in his health care and his future Medicare.

“P.S.,” he wrote, members of Congress “work for us, why should they have health care that is superior to ours?”

Good point. It is unfair for taxpayers who are suffering in the recession, losing their health insurance along with their jobs, to have to pay for Congress’ generous benefits, including health care. A survey by Rasmussen Reports in July found that 78 percent of voters said every American should be allowed to purchase the same health-insurance plan that members of Congress have.

And that brings us to a basic contradiction in the national debate over health-care reform.

Many who demand that Uncle Sam keep his hands off their health care also want access to what essentially is a government-run plan. To be sure, members of Congress have private insurance, not a “single-payer” system as in Canada or Great Britain, and their health care isn’t free. But it comes through a government pipeline. As for Medicare, which most seniors wouldn’t trade for love nor money, it of course is also run by the government.

Critics of reform warn that insurance exchanges like the one Congress participates in are the first step on a slippery slope to a government takeover of health care. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., challenged his fellow congressmen to confront their hypocrisy.

“When I listen to the hysterical descriptions of what is in this legislation, I would remind many members to look at themselves in the mirror. Because what they are presently entitled to as members of Congress is exactly what this legislation is proposing to create for all Americans,” Courtney said in the education and labor committee in July. He repeated his message on the House floor.

President Barack Obama is trying to make good on his campaign pledge to create a system of competing, federally approved private insurance policies as well as a public plan through which individuals and small businesses could purchase health insurance. The public plan now is in doubt, but the insurance exchanges are in House and Senate bills.

As the Senate Finance Committee plowed through more than 500 amendments to the reform bill proposed by chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., I looked into congressional health care. This information comes from the Congressional Research Service, Web sites of members of Congress, FactCheck.org and other sources.

Many people think that senators and House members have their own special Cadillac health plan. Not so. Congress is under the same Federal Employees’ Health Benefits Program that covers all federal workers with the same rules and benefits. (Members of Congress pay an extra annual fee for services of the Capitol physician, and they’re eligible for free outpatient medical care in military treatment facilities in the capital region.)

The insurance purchasing exchange offers about 300 private insurance plans. Health insurance companies compete and submit bids to the government. All plans cover a range of benefits, including hospital, surgical, physician, mental health, prescriptions, emergency care and “catastrophic” care. About 8 million federal workers, including members of Congress, and their families participate. Each worker has about a dozen options, depending on where he lives.

The government pays up to 75 percent of the average premium with employees picking up no less than 25 percent. This is comparable to workers in private industry. Employees of private companies pay an average of 27 percent of the premium cost for family coverage, according to a new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

For more details about the federal health plan, check out the U.S. Office of Personnel Management site, www.opm.gov.

In a Q&A on his Web site, Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., tackles a question on many minds: Will members of Congress be covered under the new health plan or will they retain their current benefits?

The answer to both questions is yes, the sort of squishy response that drives citizens wild. Cardin explains, however, that Congress will be covered under health-care reform, but since the bills allow people to keep their current health care, members of Congress will be able to stay on the federal employees’ plan.

The question is whether the politicians will give the people they work for a similar choice.

(Marsha Mercer is an independent columnist writing in Washington, D.C. You can contact her at marsha.mercer@yahoo.com)

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Is Jimmy Carter right on race? -- Sept. 17, 2009 column


In 2006 Jimmy Carter told PBS’ Charlie Rose about Barack Obama, “I just don’t think he’s got the proven substance or experience to be president.”

This was before Obama announced his candidacy, and the former president was supporting Al Gore. Carter backed Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries.

When Carter finally endorsed Obama in June 2008, the Republican National Committee gleefully trotted out a YouTube video of Carter’s remark to show what he had thought about Obama earlier.

I mention this to remind that Jimmy Carter is no babe in the peanut patch when it comes to the news media in the electronic age. His words, spoken and written, on Palestinians, Israel and the Middle East long have stirred controversy.

So when he told NBC News’s Brian Williams in an interview Tuesday, “An overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man,” Carter knew what he was doing. He was causing a headache for the president who has worked assiduously to keep race off the table.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Carter intended to send Obama running for the Tylenol. I accept that he was speaking from the heart to Williams and at a town hall meeting at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

Many people, myself included, are deeply troubled by the harsh tone of the protests against Obama and health-care reform. But what’s unclear is how widespread the hatred is and its source.

A questioner at the Carter Center asked about the “You lie” outburst by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., and protests portraying Obama as Hitler. Carter replied, “There’s an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president.”

He told Williams the “racism inclination still exists. And I think it’s bubbled up to the surface because of the belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country.”

Carter, who will celebrate his 85th birthday Oct. 1, is a lifelong proponent of civil rights. He’s certainly entitled to his opinion, and he’s not alone in sensing racial prejudice in anti-Obama protests.

But his comments weren’t helpful to the current national debate about health-care reform or race relations in America. If he wanted to start a serious conversation about either, the way to do it was not to attack Obama’s critics as bigots.

As with Carter’s earlier comments, the RNC made hay of his words about racism. Michael Steele, the first African-American chairman of the Republican Party, said in a statement, “President Carter is flat-out wrong. This isn’t about race. It is about policy.”

Carter was speaking his own mind; the White House wanted nothing to do with him. But Steele cast it as a strategy, saying, “This is a pathetic distraction by Democrats to shift attention away from the president’s wildly unpopular government-run health care plan that the American people simply oppose.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs tried to downplay Carter’s remarks. Obama does not believe the criticism “comes based on the color of his skin,” nor should Carter’s remarks be the impetus for larger discussions about hostile protests, Gibbs said. The president ignored a reporter’s question on Carter’s comments.

Republicans jumped on the comments as Carter’s “playing the race card.”

“Playing the race card shows that Democrats are willing to deal from the bottom of the deck,” Steele said.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same rhetoric John McCain’s campaign used against Obama last year.

Obama warned then that Republicans were trying to scare voters -- “You know, he’s not patriotic enough. He’s got a funny name…he doesn’t look like those other presidents on those dollar bills.”

McCain’s campaign manager fired off a statement, saying, “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck.”

Republicans are happy to associate Obama with a failed, one-term Democratic president.

Jimmy Carter should know by now that even if he’s sure he’s right, it’s sometimes better to savor the glory of the unexpressed thought.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Trust a President Under 50? -- Sept. 10, 2009 column

Note to readers: An earlier version incorrectly said President Obama is the first president born after the 1946 to 1964 baby boom. MM


In the spirit of Woodstock and the return of Beatlemania, here’s another blast from the past: “Don’t trust anybody over 30!”

That rallying cry from the 1960s has gotten a 21st century makeover. Four decades later, many baby boomers and their elders don’t trust a president who’s under 50 or his youthful White House aides.

This generation gap is a problem for President Obama if he’s to pass health-care reform. The president born near the end of the baby boom of 1946 to 1964 must persuade older boomers to trust him.

The torch has been passed to a new generation, to borrow John F. Kennedy’s famous line, and to a president born more than six months after JFK uttered those words at his inauguration.

The first baby boomers turned 60 three years ago; Obama celebrated 48 last month. Unfortunately, the angriest voices from summer town halls were those of aging white male baby boomers.

To be sure, being a certain age guarantees a politician nothing. Baby-boomer presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had many foes in their generation.

But Obama was never the first choice of voters over 50. In the primaries, Hillary Clinton was the favorite of older Democrats. In the November election, voters over 60 were the only age group that chose John McCain over Obama.

With most congressional Republicans opposing reform, Obama desperately needs Democrats to believe they won’t be throwing away their careers if they support it. Seniors vote and will turn out for next year’s midterm elections.

Health-care reform will affect everyone as no other legislation has in decades. People are asking, what’s in it for me and what will it cost me?

Seniors worry that Obama’s oft-repeated promise to pay for reform without adding one dime to the federal deficit inevitably will result in cuts to Medicare benefits.

In his address to Congress and the nation Wednesday night, Obama spoke to seniors directly.

“Don't pay attention to those scary stories about how your benefits will be cut,” he declared. “I will protect Medicare.”

Obama set to rest once more the spurious claim that reform will authorize death panels. He called Medicare “a sacred trust that must be passed down from one generation to the next,” and reassured seniors “not a dollar of the Medicare trust fund will be used to pay for this plan.”

So far, so good.

But he also promised to eliminate hundreds of billions of dollars in waste, fraud and “unwarranted subsidies in Medicare that go to insurance companies.” His plan also would create an independent medical commission to identify more waste. His broad overview left many questions to be answered in coming months.

If someone is disposed to trust the president and government, such uncertainty is tolerable. But critics have spent months ginning up insecurity with false claims and scare tactics.

Interestingly, the under-30 crowd, strongest supporters of Obama, have not rallied around health-care reform. Nobody ever expects to need health care, and the idea that everybody would be required to purchase health insurance is unpopular with invincible youth.

Obama now believes that the system won’t work unless everybody participates, a shift since the primaries.

History tells us that seniors do have the power to kill reform. Twenty years ago, the burning issue were changes in Medicare that provided more coverage but were paid for with higher Medicare premiums.

In what became a pivotal scene in August 1989, angry seniors surrounded Rep. Dan Rosentowski, D-Ill., chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, as he left a town hall meeting. Shouting demonstrators blocked his car from leaving.

“These people don’t understand what the government is trying to do for them,” a frustrated Rostenkowski complained.

Maybe so, but Congress subsequently repealed the unpopular measure.

Obama insists that his plan will provide Medicare recipients with all their promised benefits and may even save money for some with high out-of-pocket prescription costs.

“That’s what this plan will do for you,” the president said.

Obama has laid out his intentions. If he follows through and keeps the faith, he may yet convince skeptical seniors to trust a president under 50.

(c) 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Waiting for Obama -- Sept. 3, 2009 column


As Paulette gave my hair a late-summer trim, I asked what she thinks now of the president who won her vote.

“I haven’t seen much change yet,” said Paulette, an independent voter, frowning. “Lots of money spent and lots of yelling. I keep waiting for him to, well, arrive.”

That’s about as good as it gets for Barack Obama these days. His critics are gleeful that the president has had a rough summer and are eager to write him off. But if voters are still waiting, he can regain momentum.

The president’s job-approval numbers are down, but Congress’ numbers are worse. Obama faces an uphill fight with health-care reform, but he has the bully pulpit to remind voters why they liked him and his plans.

This week will be critical. On Tuesday, Obama plans to give a pep talk to the nation’s students. Wednesday night, he will address a joint session of Congress, trying to revive his overhaul of the health-care system. Friday, he’ll lead a National Day of Service and Remembrance, honoring those killed in the horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s a sign of the times that these seemingly uncontroversial events unleashed waves of conservative criticism.

Critics flew into a tizzy over the speech to students, charging it’s an attempt to brainwash children. Republicans announced that nothing the president says to Congress will make much difference. Some talk show hosts knocked service because it shifts attention from the 9/11 attacks and the perpetrators. Plus, the groups participating in the day of service represent all parts of the political spectrum, including the left.

In his speech to students, Obama will urge kids to work hard, set educational goals and take responsibility for their learning. The speech will be broadcast on C-SPAN and the White House Web site. Education Secretary Arne Duncan encouraged school principals to have their classes tune in.

A president exhorting children to study should be inoffensive and unexceptional – but in 2009, it’s neither.

The chairman of the Republican party of Florida, Jim Greer, fired off a press release to declaring that he was appalled at Obama’s use of taxpayer funds to spread his “socialist ideology.” Greer later said the real problem was the teaching tools provided by the administration. No matter that these were optional.

Critics jumped on a suggestion that pupils write themselves letters about how they could help the president as an Orwellian attempt to indoctrinate children. The Education Department quickly rewrote the offending sentence to say that students should write themselves letters setting short-term and long-term educational goals.

Some school districts have decided not to carry the president’s speech. Others may show it but allow parents to opt out. Some talk radio hosts even called for parents to keep their children home.

This kerfuffle is embarrassing. Imagine the chatter if a foreign president sparked an uproar in his country by calling for children to study.

At least we can expect open minds on Capitol Hill, right? Not exactly. Before Obama could lay out specifics of his plan, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said, “The problem is what he’s trying to sell.”

Democrats are waiting for Obama to show leadership on health care. If he drops or soft-pedals the public option, a government alternative to private insurance, he could please Blue Dog Democrats, the moderates and conservatives crucial to reform’s passage, while alienating organized labor and liberals.

AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Rich Trumka, who is expected to become the union’s president this month, called the public option “an absolute must” and said it’s time for organized labor to remember its friends and punish its enemies.

Obama’s attempt to unite the country on Sept. 11 also met with resistance. The president and first lady innocuously called on all Americans to make a difference in their communities, not just on 9/11 but in the days, weeks and months to follow.

Some commentators complained that collecting food for the hungry and other such projects distract from remembering the attacks and this somehow demeans the memory of the more than 3,000 who were killed.

A year ago, though, President George W. Bush also tried to rekindle the neighbor-helping-neighbor spirit that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“Volunteerism is strong in the country. But the truth of the matter is, the farther we've gotten away from 9/11, that memory has begun to fade,” Bush said.

September is a time for fresh starts and cooler temperatures. Voters like Paulette are waiting for Obama to arrive.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

'Just stay home' when pigs fly -- Aug. 27, 2009 column


It sounds like the plot of a horror movie:

An insidious virus sweeps the nation, infecting half the population. Millions go to work sick, spreading disease. Hospitals and intensive care units are overloaded. Medicines are in short supply, and pharmacies run out. Within a few months, the dead number 90,000, with most of the victims under the age of 50.

It’s not a movie. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology offered this “plausible scenario” in a report about a possible surge of the swine flu, or 2009 H1N1, this fall and winter. The council emphasized that the scenario was not a prediction but a possibility that federal, state and local officials should use in planning.

There’s no need to panic, but the government wants people to be aware that swine flu could be worse than it was last spring. As for a vaccine to protect us -- don’t count on it. We’ll need to take steps ourselves and if we get sick, stay home, if we can.

The report said peak infection could come by mid-October. But it will be Thanksgiving before shots can protect most Americans from H1N1, Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters.

Manufacturers started testing the vaccine’s safety only this month. The government’s vaccination campaign is supposed to start in mid-October, but it will require two doses three weeks apart and then take a couple of weeks to become effective.

And, there’s a logistical challenge. The government recommends that people also get inoculated against seasonal flu, which typically kills about 36,000 a year. That means three flu shots.

It’s possible that manufacturers will be able to produce and distribute the swine flu vaccine earlier or that the virus won’t surge next month after school and cooler, drier weather resume. Nobody knows.

When swine flu arrived last April, dire predictions caused turmoil – but the virus was not as devastating as feared. Unlike seasonal flu which tends to dissipate in warmer months, though, swine flu persisted through the summer, infecting some kids at camp. That worries health officials.

To combat the flu, the Centers for Disease Control and other health organizations advise plenty of hand-washing, coughing into tissues and sleeves (not hands) and just stay home when sick.

These precautions are sensible, but there’s a weak link. Millions of Americans can’t stay home because they lack paid sick days. They risk financial and even job loss if they don’t go to work. While 61 percent of private-sector workers have paid sick leave, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in March, only 26 percent of part-time workers do.

Paid sick days are standard for government and white-collar employees but not for those in food service, hotels and construction. Only about 15 percent of restaurant workers have paid sick days, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The president’s council recommended flexible sick leave policies. A couple of cities have passed such measures, and about 15 states, including North Carolina, are considering them. But it will take a federal law to make paid sick days a widespread reality. This should be a priority when Congress returns from its August break.

To be sure, this is hardly the time to ask businesses to expand benefits, especially small businesses that are hurting, but public health may depend on it. Besides, some studies have shown that “presenteeism,” sick employees coming to work and infecting their co-workers, actually costs employers more than absenteeism. A 2007 study by the Society for Human Resources Management pegged presenteeism at $180 billion annually and absenteeism at $118 billion.

Passing paid sick days would be a tribute to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D- Mass. For years, Kennedy and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., have proposed the Healthy Families Act that would require employers with more than 15 workers to allow employees to accrue seven days of sick leave annually. The time could be used to care for a sick family member.

In Washington offices these days, you’re more likely to see a bottle of hand sanitizer or a bowl of moist towelettes on a reception desk than a bouquet of fresh flowers. Visitors to the National Building Museum are greeted by a poster that reads: “Wash Your Hands & Reduce the Spread of Germs.”

That’s good advice. Now, Congress needs to act to protect public health by making sure sick workers can just stay home.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

How to get health-care reform on track -- Aug. 20, 2009 column


Several smart journalists were on a public radio talk show the other day, calmly and dispassionately discussing health-care reform, when something surprising happened.

A man who had lost his insurance called, and he was angry. These panelists all have coverage, he said, and they can’t possibly understand how the issue affects people who don’t.

After the tiniest pause, the host invited the caller to tell his story. It was too late; he had already hung up. The host clucked that the man should have used his moment to enlighten the world, but I could understand his frustration.

In this cantankerous summer of shouting matches and gun-toting creeps at health-care town halls, it often seems that the uninsured, the people who will be most affected by health-care reform, either have been used as props or simply ignored. Even their numbers are in dispute. Is it 46 million or half that?

Furious speakers at congressional town hall meetings rage against losing their current benefits and raise the specter of Big Brother and “death panels.” Congressmen worry about next year’s elections. President Obama talks about curbing costs when he could be fostering a can-do, we’re-all-in-this-together attitude.

Change as big as health-care reform is about more than dollars and deficits and heartless bureaucrats and insurance companies. It’s about the kind of country we want.

It’s not too late for the president to use his bully pulpit to set a new tone and lead a discussion about our moral responsibilities to our fellow citizens. Oddly, it has taken until this week for the president to raise the moral imperative, which he did in calls with liberal religious leaders.

As Obama wrestles with congressional Democrats to pass reform in the fall, he and his advisers should remember what attracted voters. Candidate Obama said health care should be the right of every American.

During the second presidential debate last fall, NBC newsman Tom Brokaw asked candidates John McCain and Obama if health care is “a privilege, a right or a responsibility.”

McCain responded mushily that health care is an individual responsibility, sort of.

“I think it’s a responsibility, in this respect, in that we should have available and affordable health care to every American citizen, to every family member. … But government mandates I — I’m always a little nervous about. But it is certainly my responsibility,” McCain said.

Obama replied crisply, “Well, I think it should be a right for every American.”

He continued, “In a country as wealthy as ours, for us to have people who are going bankrupt because they can't pay their medical bills -- for my mother to die of cancer at the age of 53 and have to spend the last months of her life in the hospital room arguing with insurance companies because they're saying that this may be a pre-existing condition and they don't have to pay her treatment, there's something fundamentally wrong about that.”

Obama won with a vision of change that lifted up all Americans. Now is not time for the country to wallow in an every-man-for-himself mentality.

But this summer, health-care reform has been about self-interest. The people who complain loudest against a government takeover and socialized medicine already have health insurance. They don’t need a government option.

The White House may jettison the public option so that some sort of bipartisan reform can pass. That’s politics, but to win Democratic support, the final bill needs to include a way to ensure coverage for citizens who lack insurance. That’s more than a political reality. Without such a measure, we risk rising social insecurity and distrust in institutions.

I’ve been surprised by the level of cynicism in the mail I receive from readers, and I’ll write more about that soon. For now, let’s say that many people have lost their faith in politicians, government and the chattering class.

After all, the so-called government experts who tell us the economy is on the mend all have jobs and health insurance. The pundits and professors who say we should rethink the American dream of home ownership and be satisfied with renting? They own their own homes – and have jobs and health insurance.

Empathy got a bad name during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, but the angry radio caller was right to want a seat at the table for those who will be most affected by what happens in Washington.

©2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Obama as LBJ? -- Aug. 13, 2009 column


President Lyndon Johnson, signing Medicare into law 44 years ago, triumphantly predicted better lives not only for the elderly but also for younger Americans.

“No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine,” Johnson said. “No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years. No longer will young families see their own incomes, and their own hopes, eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents, and to their uncles, and their aunts.”

The genius of LBJ was in offering something for everybody. Yes, seniors would benefit from Medicare, but so too would the younger generation. The new Medicaid program would begin to cover poor children and some of the disabled.

Johnson was right. Medicare transformed lives across generational lines, easing the burden of health-care costs for our aging population. Now ironically that success has become a problem for President Barack Obama as he tries to extend health-care security to other groups.

Polls show that the majority of people over 50 oppose Obama’s health-care reform ideas, while a majority of those under 50 support them. The face of the angry protester at congressional town hall meetings is the retiree who likes his or her Medicare just the way it is, thank you.

In Portsmouth, N.H., Obama tried to reassure seniors, saying, “We are not talking about cutting Medicare benefits.” But he’s also looking for significant savings from the popular program, which he says can be accomplished without hurting beneficiaries.

Obama talked about a letter from a woman who wrote, “I don’t want government-run health care. I don’t want you meddling in the private marketplace. And keep your hands off my Medicare.”

The crowd laughed, and he said, “True story.” He cited Medicare as an example of a government program run right and said seniors should have more confidence that “government
can have a role – not the dominant role, but a role – in making sure the people are treated fairly when it comes to insurance.”

You’d think everyone could agree to such a mild goal, but trust in government is in short supply.

Because no one bill is under consideration – several are kicking around in the House and Senate – nobody can say with certainty what provisions will be in the final package. That has opened the door to fear-mongering, including preposterous claims by Sarah Palin that government “death panels” could withhold care from her parents and baby with Down Syndrome and Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who suggested the House Democratic health-reform bill would lead to the government putting elderly people to death.

Palin subsequently stepped back from her claim.

Obama has tried to tamp down fears of Big Brother and rationing, and he has shifted the emphasis from covering the millions who are uninsured to attacking the insurance industry. The idea is that most people do have insurance, but they’re unhappy with their coverage. This may turn out to be a miscalculation.

A new poll by CNN-Opinion Research Corp. found that 74 percent of people are satisfied with their insurance, and 83 percent are happy with their health care.

Obama wants to be the heir to Lyndon Johnson, and it still seems likely that some kind of health-care reform will pass, although it may be less than Obama wants.

As the “don’t-touch-Medicare” chorus grows louder, however, Obama risks becoming more like Bill Clinton, whose attempt to overhaul the entire health-care system died partly because of the opposition of seniors. Voters in the following midterm election punished Democrats and delivered control of the House and Senate to Republicans.

Clinton, chastened by the defeat of reform and the 1994 elections, said on the 30th anniversary of Medicare in 1995, “We had people all over America coming up to me or the first lady…saying, ‘Don’t let the government mess with my Medicare.’ People had actually forgotten where it came from, as if it sort of dropped out of the sky.”

In Johnson’s Great Society, government was a partner in fostering hope across generational lines. Clinton failed at bringing the generations together. We’re about to find out if Obama can cast the benefit net widely -- or whether opponents will be successful in depicting reform as a zero-sum game in which one group must lose.

© Copyright 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Taxing the middle class after all – Aug. 6, 2009 column


It’s hard to argue with raising other people’s taxes.

When President Barack Obama said the best way to pay for health-care reform may be for people like himself “who have been very lucky and are in the top – not just one percent but top half percent – of the income ladder to pay a little bit more,” many people thought he had an excellent idea.

The late Sen. Russell B. Long of Louisiana was onto something when he said raising taxes is a game of "don't tax you, don't tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree."

It’s pleasant to think that a lucky few can deliver health-care coverage with little pain to themselves or anyone else. So why stop there? Tax the rich to rein in the ballooning federal deficit and save Social Security and Medicare.

If only it were that easy.

It’s time to put aside the happy fiction that tapping the top 5 percent of tax filers can solve the nation’s financial troubles. It won’t happen.

Sad but true: The deep pockets aren’t deep enough. That’s not just a Republican line; liberal economists say taming the deficit beast will require help from the middle class too.

Candidate Obama promised everybody making less than $250,000 a year that they won’t pay a dime more in taxes. President Obama is sticking to that promise and is pledging to pay for health-care reform without adding a penny to the federal deficit.

Like every president, Obama also has taken aim at wasteful government spending, fraud and abuse, but those popular targets never yield much.

Something’s got to give.

Polls show most people favor paying for health reform through limiting tax deductions for high rollers and forcing smokers to pay more per pack.

Senate leaders have a list of revenue options. These include requiring well-off seniors to pay more for prescription drugs, taxing people who don’t buy health insurance and companies that provide especially generous insurance plans, new excise taxes and limits on health savings accounts. Meanwhile, committees are working to whittle down the price tag of a trillion dollars over 10 years.

Even if some form of paid-for reform becomes law, though, we’ll still face a stack of bills from the economic stimulus plan and other Obama spending projects. The conventional wisdom used to be that “deficits don’t count.” These days, people are worried about the country’s massive deficit.

Two of the president’s top economic advisers refused on Sunday talk shows to rule out raising taxes on the middle class. Nor are they saying yes to higher taxes just yet.

“It is never a good idea to absolutely rule things out no matter what,” Larry Summers, a former Treasury secretary, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” And Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said on ABC’s “This Week” that once the recovery is established, “We have to do what’s necessary” to bring down the deficit, and that will require “some very hard choices.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, “I don’t think any economist would believe that, in the environment that we’re in, that raising taxes on middle-class families would make any sense.”

Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution who was on Clinton’s budget team, is among those saying higher taxes for the middle class are inevitable.

Sawhill told New York Times reporter Jackie Calmes, “There is no way we can pay for health care and the rest of the Obama agenda, plus get our long-term deficits under control, simply by raising taxes on the wealthy,” adding, “The middle class is going to have to contribute as well.”

All this explains why you’ll be hearing more about a value-added tax.

The VAT is a consumption tax used in scores of countries around the world. The tax on goods and services is assessed along the line, rather than at the end point of sale, like a sales tax. Since consumers don’t see it, the VAT is a way to raise taxes fairly painlessly.

Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, said Sunday that he thinks a VAT is likely – in time.

A growing group of academic and think-tank economists are pushing a VAT as part of an overhaul of the income tax code. Proponents say a VAT is fair because nobody can evade it, and tinkering can make it less regressive.

Still, the idea will take some getting used to. With a VAT, everybody is “that man behind the tree.”


© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.