Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Obama passes birth certificate test -- April 27, 2011 column


President Barack Obama’s surprise decision to give up his “long-form” birth certificate looked like a misstep.

It won’t satisfy hard-core birthers – nothing will. It gratified the egomaniacal Donald Trump. And it showed Obama’s keen sensitivity to criticism, his Achilles heel.

And yet, with one Internet posting and a few minutes talking to reporters in the White House briefing room, Obama not only put a fake issue behind him, he also showed he understands that a large swath of the population doesn’t get him. Who could be more distant than a president who seems not to be an American? And he finally used the bully pulpit effectively.

“We do not have time for this kind of silliness,” he said. “We’ve got big problems to solve.”

For months, Trump, the billionaire developer, TV mogul and possible presidential contender, has been nibbling at what Obama has to hide by refusing the give up his full birth certificate.

No matter that Obama had posted online a shorter birth certificate that the state of Hawaii said was authentic. No matter that the Honolulu newspapers ran baby Obama birth announcements in August 1961 that came from the local health department. No matter that investigations by news organizations and nonprofits all concluded Obama was born in Hawaii.

Still, polls showed the birther issue was in no way abating. Many Americans doubted Obama was born in the USA and questioned his legitimacy as president.

When Obama released the longer birth certificate on Wednesday, Trump declared himself “very proud” and “really honored” that he had forced the president to do something no one else had accomplished.

Obama said he released the birth certificate because the controversy had overshadowed news coverage of economic issues, including his deficit-reduction plan.

Every president’s default position is to blame the news media, but Obama evidently lets the coverage get under his skin. Before he spoke to reporters, Obama watched NBC’s Chuck Todd repeatedly say how “surreal” it was that Obama would be talking about his birth certificate and not his new foreign policy team. Obama chided Todd directly.

“I would not have the networks breaking in (on regular programming) if I was talking about that, Chuck, and you know it,” he said.

Obama’s Achilles heel is that he’s thin-skinned. In their book “The Battle for America 2008,” journalists Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson uncovered a memo that David Axelrod, Obama’s longtime friend and political adviser, wrote Obama in 2006.

Axelrod wrote: “You care far too much what is written and said about you. You don’t relish combat when it becomes personal and nasty. When the largely irrelevant Alan Keyes attacked you, you flinched.” Keyes was Obama’s Republican opponent in the 2004 U.S. Senate race.

Uh-oh. Is Trump this year’s Keyes?

Obama told reporters that the week House Republicans pushed their budget plan and he delivered his televised deficit-reduction speech, “that entire week the dominant news story wasn’t about these huge, monumental choices that we’re going to have to make as a nation. It was about my birth certificate.”

It must have seemed that way in the White House. But researchers who track news coverage say that domestic economic issues did dominate the news the week of April 11 to 17. The birth certificate consumed just 4 percent of the media’s attention, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

I believe that even 4 percent on the birther issue was too much, but it was hardly a big story. 40 percent of the coverage centered on economic issues.

As for Trump, he’s now chewing on Obama’s resume. He wonders how “a terrible student” was able to get into Columbia University and Harvard Law School. He wants Obama to release his college transcripts. This is absurd.

A few weeks ago, only 38 percent of people surveyed said they believed Obama was “definitely” born in Hawaii. The USA Today-Gallup also poll found that 18 percent said he “probably” was born in the United States.

Nearly one in four said Obama definitely or probably was born in another country, and nearly one in five didn’t know what to think

Now they do.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Coffee, flour, Medicare -- all still essential? April 20, 2011 column


As Congress and the president battle over whether to reinvent Medicare or just tinker around the edges, it’s enlightening to eavesdrop on LBJ nearly half a century ago.

On March 6, 1965, as Congress was laboring over the Medicare bill, President Lyndon B. Johnson was on the Oval Office phone, talking with Hubert Humphrey, his vice president.

“Don’t ever argue with me. I’ll go a hundred million or a billion on health or education,” LBJ declared. “I don’t argue about that any more than I argue about Lady Bird buying flour. You have to have flour and coffee in your house and education and health. I’ll spend the goddamn money. I may cut back some tanks. But not on health.”

David Blumenthal and James A. Morone analyzed tapes of LBJ’s Oval Office conversations for their 2009 book, “The Heart of Power,” on the politics of American health policy and concluded that the conversation was typical of the president who played a larger role in the creation of Medicare than most people realize.

In his chat with Humphrey, Johnson articulated a homespun standard that has held for nearly 50 years: Some things you have to have, period. You buy the essentials now and figure out how to pay later.

This, of course, is not 1965, when Democrats controlled Congress and Johnson was still popular. The country was enjoying an economic boom, but only about half the nation’s seniors had health insurance.

The question facing us is whether LBJ’s Great Society is still relevant, or even possible, in an era of exploding federal deficits. If LBJ’s vision is too rich for today’s aging population, are we doomed to a Pretty Good Society? Must we -- to use the chilling analogy from Vietnam -- destroy Medicare in order to save it?

House Budget chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and House Republicans want to scrap the current system and institute a more modest Medicare. They also would switch Medicaid to block grants and cut education and other spending – all without raising taxes or going beyond the $78 billion in Defense cuts already outlined by Secretary Robert Gates.

Ryan changes nothing about Medicare for those now 55 and older, but in 2022 new Medicare recipients would get “premium-support payments” or vouchers to purchase private insurance through a Medicare exchange.

His plan is dead in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where a bipartisan group is working on an alternative.

President Obama wants to raise taxes on individuals making more than $200,000 a year and couples making more than $250,000. He would preserve Medicare while curbing its spending . . . somehow. He says he will rely on a future independent commission’s recommendations for Medicare savings. And he calls for the Defense Department to identify $400 billion in cuts over 10 years.

It’s always easier to give people something than to take something away. Ryan claims his plan offers seniors coverage just like the health plan federal workers and members of Congress have. Not exactly, says Uwe E. Reinhardt, economics professor at Princeton.

The federal plan is basically “a typical employer-sponsored health insurance plan,” Reinhardt wrote Monday in the New York Times’ Economix blog. The federal government, supported by taxpayers, contributes to the premiums federal workers and members of Congress pay to competing private insurers.

The key is that the government’s contributions rise in step with the average premiums charged by private insurers.

Under the Ryan plan, however, the federal contribution to future Medicare beneficiaries would be tied to the Consumer Price Index, which has risen at a much lower rate than per-capita health spending, Reinhardt points out.

The bottom line is that beneficiaries would have to make up the difference, paying thousands more out of pocket, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

One beauty of Medicare in 1965 and today is that every generation contributes and benefits. Signing Medicare into law in July 1965, LBJ said:

“No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine. 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, to their uncles, and their aunts.”

Let’s hope this president and Congress find a way to keep coffee, flour and Medicare in the house.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Where's Walt Whitman? Budget war needs a poet -- April 14, 2011 column


News this week of Walt Whitman’s day job as a lowly federal clerk brought the Civil War – and current budget wars – into rare alignment.

On the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the National Archives in Washington announced the discovery of nearly 3,000 documents handwritten by one of America’s most famous and influential American poets of the 19th Century.

Meanwhile, Congress and the president dug in for a long and bitter fight over the country’s direction, as set by our spending priorities. Among the many looming questions: Should taxpayers support scholarly, artistic and cultural pursuits – like the Whitman research -- and by how much?

The documents handwritten by Whitman were not his own poems, letters, diary entries, journalism or essays. These were official documents the former newspaper editor copied for the federal government in the pre-typewriter 1860s to support himself while he did what he really wanted – nurse sick and wounded soldiers in the many hospitals around Washington.

Kenneth M. Price, an American literature professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-director of the Walt Whitman Archive, spent two years searching official documents in dusty volumes at the National Archives for the distinctive way Whitman wrote his D, X and C.

“I remember getting glazed,” Price said in a video interview on the National Archives site, and, “suddenly I turned the page, and there it was.”

The beautifully penned letters and orders deal with such topics as charges of treason, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ treatment after the war. About 2,000 documents are expected to be put on later this year.

The Whitman Archive has as its ambitious goal making all of Whitman’s vast body of work easily available, free and online, to scholars, students and general readers. It’s a huge task because Whitman was a prolific writer and editor. “Leaves of Grass,” his major work, was published in six very different editions.

Whitman, who was in his 40s during the Civil War, did not serve in the military. He lived in Washington from 1863 to 1873, moving to the city after finding his brother George who was wounded, superficially, as it turned out, near Fredericksburg, Va.

Whitman devoted himself to nursing in the makeshift hospitals that sprang up around the city. He took the patients oranges and sweets and wrote letters home for them.

“I go around among these sights, among the crowded hospitals doing what I can, yet it is a mere drop in the bucket,” Whitman wrote in his journal. For more on Whitman’s experience as a wartime nurse, read Angel Price’s excellent essay on the University of Virginia’s Crossroads site.

Some 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War, most of sickness, not battle wounds. Some soldiers credited Whitman's kindness with saving their lives.

Price began his work on the Whitman archive in 1995. He also co-directs the Civil War Washington site, which studies the city’s transformation during the war, and the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska.

Price and the National Archives both credit federal grants with making the Whitman discovery possible. Price has received more than a million dollars in grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities since 2003. He has received other grants from the Education Department’s Fund for the Improvement of Secondary Education as well as the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the Institutes for Museum and Library Sciences.

Republicans are calling for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., recently complained that NEH budget cuts could hurt the Nevada-based Cowboy Poets Gathering, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh both endorsed cutting the funds.

The NEH and NEA both got trimmed in the compromise spending bill that cut $38.5 billion from 2011 accounts. Each agency will receive $155 million for 2011, a cut of $12.5 million – or 7.5 percent. Both are likely to be targeted in the 2012 budget fight, which has already begun.

I’m a fan of using tax dollars to put everything by Whitman online. But I’m an English major.

What do you think?

(c) 2011 All rights reserved. Marsha Mercer.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Ryan budget plan sets table for 2012 -- April 7, 2011 column


Oddly, both political parties see Paul Ryan’s budget plan as a gift to their 2012 campaigns.

Republicans praise the House Budget chairman’s fiscal 2012 plan to cut federal spending by $6.2 trillion over 10 years as a voter- (read Tea Party-) friendly plan to overhaul entitlements and repeal “Obamacare” – all without raising taxes.

Democrats, meanwhile, salivate over the heart-tugging campaign ads they can create about the draconian Republican proposals to blow up Medicare and Medicaid, leave millions uninsured and decimate safety net programs – all without raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

The enthusiasm on the political right could hardly be higher. An editorial in Investor’s Business Daily newspaper on “Ryan’s Way” began, “So, what’s not to like?” and concluded, “This is a great plan.” It snarkily asked whether Democrats would “muster the political wisdom and courage to support something from the opposition that would work.”

In contrast, an editorial in The New York Times decried Ryan’s plan to shift the costs of Medicare to its beneficiaries said it would hurt seniors, the poor and the most vulnerable in society. The Times warned, “This isn’t real reform. If it goes forward, Americans will pay a high price.”

Whatever becomes of Ryan’s proposals, both Democrats and Republicans are itching to make the budget a moral fight. Ryan’s 2012 budget resolution, titled “The Path to Prosperity,” says a budget is “much more than a series of numbers. It also serves as an expression of Congress’s principles, vision and philosophy of governing.” The budget, it says, “offers a set of fundamental reforms to put the nation back on the right track.”

To which, Democrats reply, Bring it.

“The budget is a statement of our national values,” House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday. Ryan’s budget is unfair and has the wrong values, she said, Playing on Ryan’s title, she said, it was a “Road to Ruin for Medicare and a Road to Riches for Big Oil.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Ryan’s budget fails to meet the test of reflecting “American values of fairness and shared sacrifice.”

Ryan’s call to privatize Medicare and overhaul Medicaid is politically risky. About three in four people said budget cuts in Medicare were unacceptable, according to a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll. Plus, nearly one in 20 Americans is covered by Medicaid.

Under the Ryan plan, Medicaid, which provides health care for the poor and pays for most of the country’s nursing home care, would no longer be a federal entitlement. Instead, each state would receive a block grant and set its own eligibility standards and benefits.

Ryan’s Medicare plan wisely doesn’t affect anyone nearing retirement age. It would end the traditional Medicare program for those born in 1957 and after.

Under the new system, Medicare would pay a fixed amount -- $8,000 a year in 2022 dollars for someone 65 – towards the purchase of an insurance policy. The beneficiary would then buy a plan from a range of options. The Center for Economic and Policy, a progressive think tank, said in an analysis, “The premium support payment would be age-adjusted but otherwise only rise in step with overall inflation. This means that increases in health care costs in excess of the rate of inflation would be absorbed by the beneficiary.”

An analysis by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office also found that Medicare beneficiaries would have to spend far more under the new plan.

It’s worth remembering that how an issue is framed can change people’s attitudes.

In 2009, most people favored a government alternative to private medical insurance. In June 2009, a whopping 85 percent of Americans said the country’s health care system needed to be fundamentally changed. And yet, the same New York Times-CBS News survey found that 77 percent of people were very or somewhat satisfied with their own health care.

Frank Luntz, the GOP communications guru, counseled Republicans to refer to a “government takeover” of health care. Many observers think that phrase turned the tide of public opinion against the single-payer plan. The fact-checking site, PolitiFact, later concluded the “government takeover” phrase was the “2010 Lie of the Year.”

Nobody knows how the 2012 budget debate will go. One thing is clear: Elections matter.

As for Ryan, his fans have started a Paul Ryan for President – 2012 page on Facebook. Even if that doesn’t amount to anything, Ryan has time. The Wisconsin Republican is 41.

(c) 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.