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,

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.