Thursday, October 28, 2010

Health reform law alive, if unwell -- Oct. 28, 2010 column


Rarely has a law proved as unpalatable to both the political right and the left as the optimistically titled Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

To conservatives, “Obamacare” is a dog’s breakfast of a socialism and big government intrusion. Liberals complain that without a public option, the so-called reform law is just thin gruel. Both sides blame President Barack Obama, and he concedes he has been frustrated with the legislative process.

Unemployment is a bigger issue, but the new health-care law hovered over the midterm campaigns. Seven in 10 people who said they planned to vote said the new law would affect their vote, a survey by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute found.

Republican candidates promise to kill the law, but it won’t be easy. Forty-five percent of registered voters want to keep the health-care plan and 41 percent favor repeal, the latest New York Times-CBS News poll reported.

Once again, then, change electrifies the air, but as we’ve learned in the last two years, change is easier to promise than to deliver.

While the new GOP members in Congress may be able to slow the plan’s implementation, repeal seems unlikely, given the close partisan divides in the Senate and House.

Some provisions -- allowing young people to age 26 to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans, outlawing discrimination against sick children and removing the cap on lifetime benefits – are popular. Others, such as requiring everyone to purchase insurance, are in the courts. Health economists still say the plan falls without everyone’s participation.

When Obama went on “The Daily Show” Wednesday to gin up support for Democratic candidates, he again defended the new law, saying 30 million people will now get health insurance coverage. He mentioned a woman in New Hampshire who won’t have to sell her house to get her cancer medications. She doesn’t think the law is inconsequential, he said.

To liberal critics who call his legislative agenda timid, Obama said, “What happens is it gets discounted because the presumption is, well, we didn’t get 100 percent of what we wanted; we got 90 percent of what we wanted – so let’s focus on the 10 percent we didn’t get.”

Obama never persuaded Republicans to back health-care reform, and now he has lost the argument within his own party. Many Democratic candidates distanced themselves from both the Affordable Care Act and the president. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, embroiled in a tight Senate race, once said he’d fix the law when he came to Washington. More recently he has said he wouldn’t have voted for it, period.

My guess is most people who favor repeal have health insurance. They don’t want higher premiums or lower benefits. But the traditional way of getting health insurance – through an employer – is fading.

Fifty-nine percent of non-elderly Americans received health insurance through their employers in 2009, according to the benefit research institute. That is still a majority of those under age 65, but it’s a dwindling majority. In 2000, some 68.4 percent of non-elderly Americans had employment-based health benefits.

With fewer people likely to get health insurance at work in the future, the deep resistance to a public option is puzzling, especially considering the widespread popularity of Medicare. It turns out that other Americans also are more likely to get their health-care coverage through the government.

In 2009, more than one in five non-elderly Americans received coverage through such public plans as Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which are growing. Only about 6 or 7 percent of Americans purchased their insurance individually, a group that has remained fairly constant.

Obama may wish health-care reform would disappear as an issue, but it’s likely to follow him and Congress into 2012.

On “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart asked Obama if he might run this time as a pragmatist. Would his slogan be “`Yes we can, given certain conditions?’”

“I think what I would say is yes we can, but…” Obama said, trailing off as the audience and Stewart began to laugh.

“But it’s not going to happen overnight,” the president said. He didn’t laugh.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

U.S. unlikely ever to be color blind, Condoleezza Rice says in memoir -- Oct. 21, 2010 column


Shortly after LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opening restaurants to all races, a black family -- mom, dad and their 9-year-old little girl -- in Birmingham, Ala., went to a drive-in hamburger stand for the first time.

The daughter still remembers what happened: “It was nighttime, and as I bit into my hamburger, I told my parents that something tasted funny. Daddy turned on the car light. The bun was filled with onions; nothing else, just onions.”

Condoleezza Rice, who rose to the pinnacle of American success, becoming the first African-American woman secretary of state, tells the story from her childhood in her new memoir, “Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family.”

Legal segregation ended with the 1964 law, she writes, adding mildly, “Decent people, not extremists but ordinary people, would start to adapt to that fact.”

Today, she says, “Race is no longer determinative of how far one can go. That said, America is not color blind and likely never will be. Race is ever present, like a birth defect that you learn to live with but can never cure.”

That’s a tough assessment, but Rice’s roots are in the segregated South in the last half of the 20th century.

As the country began to change, she was able to move ahead, fueled by parental encouragement and her own ambition and hard work. She became a Soviet specialist with a Ph.D., worked in the Reagan and Bush I White Houses and became national security adviser to George W. Bush. She served as provost of Stanford University.

She credits her success to family, especially her late parents, John and Angelena Rice, teachers and community. At home and at school, she says, expectations were high.

“`To succeed,’ they routinely reminded us, ‘you will have to be twice as good.’ This was declared as a matter of fact, not a point for debate,” she writes.

Her maternal grandparents set family standards to maintain their dignity. They refused to allow their children to use a “colored” restroom or water foundation, telling them to wait until they got home. They owned a car to keep their children from having to ride in the back of the bus.

An only child, she began piano lessons at age 3. Soon came ballet, gymnastics and baton twirling lessons. She went to a French tutor on Saturdays. She had private typing lessons, in case she needed to know how. She took ice skating lessons.

Her parents were middle-class – her mother was a teacher and her father a guidance counselor and Presbyterian minister. John Rice became a Republican when only the Republican registrar would register to vote. He refused to join the Rev. Martin Luther King in civil rights marches, saying he did not believe in non-violence when attacked and feared he’d leave his daughter an orphan. He became friends with Stokely Carmichael and other black radicals.

“Years later, when so much attention was paid to then-Senator Obama’s radical associations, I wondered what might have been made of the people who sat our dinner table,” says Rice, who did not mention her thoughts when Obama was criticized.

John Rice moved his family from Alabama when he became an administrator at Denver University. “Daddy (said) that racism was clearly alive and well in Denver in 1972 and that he preferred the blatant racism of Alabama, for in the South ‘at least you knew where you stood.’”

His daughter understood “because I’d experienced this implicit racism firsthand.” As a high school student in Denver, Rice scored poorly on a college aptitude test. The guidance counselor suggested that she consider junior college. The confident Rice just laughed, but she did not forget.

“I have always worried that there are many young people, particularly minorities, who might internalize negative messages like that and simply give up,” she writes.

Her memoir reminds us of a shameful era. Our country’s future is brighter because of those who fought —and fight -- racism. Fortunately, in the 21st century, young people of all races have as their role models Colin Powell, Barack Obama – and Condoleezza Rice.

Onion sandwiches are in our hateful past. The sting of racial prejudice should be gone, too.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

World starved for good news feasts on Chile -- Oct.14, 2010 column


The Chilean miners’ dramatic rescue drew hordes of American media – but that wasn’t all. News organizations worldwide could not resist the story’s gravitational pull.

News outlets from 33 countries on five continents reportedly converged on the Atacama desert in Northern Chile to cover the 22-hour rescue.

Interestingly, the Chileans made sure the miners were ready for the media’s prying eyes. For nine days before the rescue, a Chilean former journalist named Alejandro Pino gave the miners tips via video link on how to talk to waiting reporters, the Washington Post reported.

After the 33 miners – clean shaven and clad in cool, green jumpsuits -- and their six rescuers were safely above ground, with the miners in far better health than many had predicted, even sober-sided news organizations went as soft as warm brie. The BBC’s blog concluded, “In the end, a potential tragedy in a remote corner of the world has been utterly transformed into one of the greatest tales of good news ever told.”

The phrasing was extravagant, but it hardly seemed an exaggeration. The world, starved for good news, suddenly had a feast. The 69-day ordeal for the miners trapped deep underground ended in a triumph of faith, hope and science. This story had something for everyone.

ABC News called the rescue the “Miracle in the Mine.” These days, we throw around words like miracle to describe everything from face cream to the latest electronic gizmo. But this time the word seemed right: 69 days is reportedly the longest period humans have ever lived underground.

Many people credited the religious faith of the miners with their survival. A 55-year-old miner had asked for Bibles, which had been dropped through the supply tube, and he had led a prayer group. As they came to the surface, many miners prayed.

Miners’ family members and friends and the Chilean government preserved hope when circumstances were most dire. The mine collapsed Aug. 5, and 17 days passed before anyone knew the miners had survived. Their provisions were so reduced that they were down to eating a spoonful of tuna a day. A small tube the size of a grapefruit was inserted to ferry supplies nearly half a mile down.

Science and engineering then came into play. Thanks to fiber optics, each miner received a daily doctor’s consultation on video, according to the New York Times, which reported that NASA doctors and Chilean Navy officers with submarine experience were consulted on the strains of prolonged confinement.

For Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire with a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard who took office only in March, the catastrophe became a point of national pride – and poetry.

“We have lived a magical night, a night we will remember throughout our lives, a night in which life defeated death,” Pinera said of the rescue.

And, he said, “We did it the Chilean way. That means we did it well.”

The crisis called out the best in the United States as well. President Barack Obama commended the Chileans and praised the Americans involved: “from the NASA team that helped design the escape vehicle to American companies that manufactured and delivered parts of the rescue drill to the American engineer who flew in from Afghanistan to operate the drill.”

As the miners emerged from what was called the shift from hell, each wore protective sunglasses provided free by the Oakley eyewear company, based in California. The glasses retail for $200 a pair, according to Oakley’s Web site.

The miners are safe, the focus on Chile has boosted sales of Chilean wine, and there may even be an uptick in Chilean tourism.

But the story doesn’t end just because the news glare does. The magical night with its miracle in the mine may yet have a darker side.

Life for the miners may turn from ecstasy to melancholy as they learn what it means to live as celebrities. Upon investigation, the state-owned copper and gold mine may be found to have been poorly managed or rife with safety problems. Pinera in time may govern disappointingly – and in prose.

Still, what may happen down the road should not dim our joy. We needed some good news, and we got it.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

In Virginia, the village concept helps people age in place

Want to stay in your own home all your life? Sometimes it takes a village. My article in AARP Bulletin

Democrats and hope, 2010 edition -- Oct. 7, 2010 column


You can’t blame ‘em for hoping.

With midterm elections on the horizon, Democrats have waited all year, fingers crossed, for the economy to bounce back. People might still be hurting come autumn, but favorable economic reports – at the least -- could help restore voters’ optimism and avert a Democratic train wreck Nov. 2. That was the theory.

The final economic numbers before the midterm elections are coming in, and, this won’t surprise you, the news isn’t great. The economy is still limping. It’s not about to throw down its crutches and sprint to Election Day. The jobless rate remains stuck, nudging 10 percent.

Republicans are gleeful, practically measuring for drapes in the House Speaker’s office. So what are Democrats supposed to do? President Barack Obama explained the grave situation Wednesday:

“Now when unemployment is still at 9.5, 9.6 percent, that gives an enormous advantage to whoever is not in power because they can simply point at the status quo and regardless of causation say, ‘You know what? It’s the folks who are in power that are at fault.’”

As if on cue, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2012, started calling Democrats “the party of food stamps” and Republicans “the party of paychecks.”

The food stamp rolls typically expand during a recession. About 32 million people received food stamps when Obama took office, and 41.8 million received them in July, according to the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service. Most people, of course, would prefer a paycheck.

Without a positive economic story to spread, Obama advised Democrats not to lose hope.

“What we have to do is to make sure that we maintain our focus on the long game,” the president counseled in New Jersey, according to news reports. His audience that night was well insulated from the anxiety of joblessless or food insecurity. Guests paid $30,400 a plate for dinner.

Democrats should not surrender control of the House and Senate because the next two years are crucial, Obama said. This is no time for Democrats to “start sulking and sitting back and not doing everything we can do to make sure our folks turn out.”

When he talked about the long game, Obama could have been referring to the 2012 election. Republicans would like nothing better than to add him to the ranks of the unemployed.

On the campaign trail, the president tries to reignite the hope of 2008, but he may feel like he’s using damp matches.

Last month, he told a Congressional Black Caucus dinner, “I need everybody here to go back to your neighborhoods, to go back to your workplaces, to go to the churches, and go to the barbershops and go to the beauty shops. And tell them we’ve got more work to do.”

The longest recession since World War II officially ended in June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, but a jobless recovery is a low tide that fails to lift anyone’s boat.

The stock market rally notwithstanding, most people are still holding their breath, waiting for jobs and security. Large companies have cash but reportedly are sitting on it or buying back stock to boost stock prices rather than hiring workers.

Non-farm, private employers pared 39,000 workers in September, according to the monthly ADP National Employment Report issued Wednesday, the last report before the election. Economists had expected a loss of about 20,000 jobs. Manufacturing, financial services and construction all lost jobs. The one bright spot, as usual, was the services sector.

The good news in recent reports is that things have been worse. Retail sales are up, and the number of first-time applicants for unemployment benefits dropped during the week that ended Oct. 2. The decline of 11,000 applicants was greater than economists expected -- but not enough to cheer about. Most analysts expect unemployment to inch up through the end of the year and beyond.

The National Retail Federation expects a “moderate” Christmas season – with sales up a little but seasonal employment down from last year.

And yet, Democrats can find glimmers of hope in the gloom. Vice President Joe Biden reassures audiences that reports of the death of the Democratic party have been greatly exaggerated.

And any day a Republican Senate candidate has to run a TV ad proclaiming she’s not a witch has to be a good one for Democrats.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.