Thursday, January 31, 2013

Obama the marriage president? -- Jan. 31, 2013 column


President Barack Obama made history and gladdened many hearts when he endorsed gay rights and gay marriage in his second inaugural address.

Just think what additional good he could have done had he also endorsed marriage generally.
I know. The tired phrase “marriage between one man and one woman” has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the political and religious right. But that need not scare the president or anyone else from talking about its benefits to individuals and society.  Married people live longer, healthier, more prosperous lives than singletons, studies show.

And you don’t have to be Rick Santorum to know that marriage is a grand anti-poverty program. Many studies have shown that If people marry before they start families, the children fare far better. This isn’t a news flash.

In 1965, an obscure assistant secretary of Labor named Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a report for President Lyndon Johnson about the breakdown of the black family. Moynihan warned that the crumbling family structure left many households headed by single women and these were more likely to be stuck in poverty. He hoped the report would be the impetus for a national strategy to break the cycle of poverty.

But Moynihan’s report was leaked to the press, causing an uproar. Any hope of a national conversation was lost as critics lambasted Moynihan for blaming the victims of poverty, insulting single moms and ignoring supports in the black community. His controversial report  notwithstanding, Moynihan went on to serve 24 years in the U.S. Senate. He died in 2003.

The problem of the collapsing American family has only gotten worse since the Moynihan report.

“Nearly 50 years later, the picture is even more grim – and the statistics can no longer be organized neatly by race,” says Isabel V. Sawhill, a budget expert and scholar at the Brookings Institution. “Moynihan’s bracing profile of the collapsing black family in the 1960s looks remarkably similar to a profile of the average white family today.”

Sawhill writes in the latest Washington Monthly: “White households have similar—or worse—statistics of divorce, unwed childbearing, and single motherhood as the black households cited by Moynihan in his report.

“In 2000, the percentage of white children living with a single parent was identical to the percentage of black children living with a single parent in 1960: 22 percent,” she says.

While Moynihan saw family formation as a racial divide, Sawhill says it’s increasingly a class issue.

“Because the breakdown of the traditional family is overwhelmingly occurring among working-class Americans of all races, these trends threaten to make the U.S. a much more class-based society over time,” she writes.

When educated, middle-class couples form two-parent families, they’re able to give their children “time and resources that lower-and working-class single mothers, however impressive their efforts to be both good parents and good breadwinners, simply do not have,” Sawhill says.

In his autobiography, “The Audacity of Hope,” Sen. Barack Obama writes that liberal policy makers and civil rights leaders, in their urgency to avoid blaming the victims of historical racism, wrongly labeled Moynihan a racist and “tended to downplay or ignore evidence that entrenched behavioral patterns among the black poor really were contributing to intergenerational poverty.”   

As president, Obama has approached making families stronger by focusing on the responsibilities of fatherhood, usually around Fathers Day. In June 2010, he announced a nationwide Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative, but he conceded that it’s hard for government to change attitudes or behavior.

“Now, I can’t legislate fatherhood – I can’t force anybody to love a child. But what we can do is send a clear message to our fathers that there is no excuse for failing to meet their obligations,” he said.

That may be sound social policy, but it doesn’t make anyone’s heart sing.   

As Obama and other leaders promote the value of gay marriage, they shouldn’t be silent on the value of marriage between a man and woman. It’s not either-or. Both are good.    

©2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Obama's risky strategy to fire up fans -- Jan. 24, 2013 column

President Barack Obama is converting his campaign apparatus to a tax-exempt organization aimed at pushing his agenda.  It’s a bold but risky move.
The newly created Organizing for Action will accept unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations.
The strategy could be a way for Obama to assure his legacy through legislative accomplishments and beat the second-term curse, a supposed phenomenon of the modern era that says most re-elected presidents have less –than-successful second terms.     
Or the strategy could backfire and bring disillusionment to the idealistic young people Obama hopes to motivate. That would be more than a setback to his progressive agenda. That would be a curse that could damn Democrats in future elections.   
Fred Wertheimer, a leading campaign finance reformer, was among the first to sound an alarm.
 “It opens the door to opportunities for government corruption by allowing corporations and individuals to provide unlimited amounts of money to directly benefit the president’s interest and potentially to receive government benefits and favors in return,” Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said in a statement. His group describes itself as working to eliminate the undue influence of big money in American politics.
“This would take President Obama about as far away as he could possibly get from the goal he set in 2008 to ‘change the way business is done in Washington,’” said Wertheimer.
The last thing Democrats need is to alienate the fans Obama brought out in droves in 2008 and 2012. Organizing for Action does plan to disclose names of donors, even though the law doesn’t require it. Aides told the New York Times they were unsure whether individual amounts would also be released.  It would help if they just said yes to full transparency.
The new group is the successor to Organizing for America, the Obama campaign arm that operated as part of the Democratic National Committee. Organizing for Action is separate from the national party and is being chartered as a  501(c)(4) organization, which must operate exclusively for the promotion of social welfare. These groups may lobby. Donations are generally not tax deductible as charitable contributions.
Obama’s position on corporate contributions evolved as he faced competition from well-funded Republicans. Wertheimer noted that Obama had refused corporate contributions for his 2009 inauguration. Planners of the 2012 Democratic National Convention initially refused corporate cash but later reversed themselves and accepted $20 million from banks and other sponsors. Obama accepted corporate contributions for his 2013 inauguration, including $250,000 from ExxonMobil.
The Organizing for Action is being run by some of Obama’s closest political advisers. Michelle Obama announced the new grassroots effort in a video three days before the inauguration. Typical of their firm grasp of the obvious, news outlets mostly focused on her new hairstyle.
It’s “the next step in our grassroots movement and will be crucial to finishing what we started,” the president wrote in a note on the Organizing for Action website.
Organizing for Action plans a grassroots structure with local control while running expensive, campaign-style TV ads.
Let’s assume that supporters are not turned off by the potential fat cat influence on the second term. Does that mean it’s smooth sailing for Organizing for Action? Not exactly. Some Democrats worry that the group will drain energy and support from the party.
We need a unified organization that will bring about victories in 2013 and 2014, and we don’t need to be splitting our efforts,” Fred Hudson, vice chairman of the Virginia Democratic  party, told Beth Reinhard of the National Journal.
 “It’s a recipe for how to lose an election. We’ve been told there will be no competition for fundraising, but that’s difficult for me to accept, and there will certainly be competition for staff and volunteers,” Hudson said.
Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager and Organizing for Action’s chairman, said before the inauguration the group will focus on gun control, immigration and climate change.
Traditionally, a second-term president has a short time to accomplish anything. By the second year, attention shifts to the midterm congressional elections, and by the third, the next presidential campaign is underway. The lame duck president may find himself not only fighting irrelevancy but scandal, as Nixon and Clinton did.   
In his inaugural address, Obama emphasized “collective action.” He used the word “together” seven times and “we” five dozen times in 15 minutes.  You might say he was organizing for action or for a strategy that holds both promise and peril for his second term.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Thank George -- first in war, peace, inaugurations -- Jan. 17, 2013 column


The Constitution requires only the 35-word oath of office.

All the rest in our presidential inaugurations – the address, poetry, prayers, marching bands and balls -- is gravy.

Before we get swept up in the pomp and pageantry – lobster and bison luncheon in the U.S. Capitol! Native Americans in their regalia! Unicyclists from Maine!  -- let’s take a moment to remember that George Washington was first in the hearts of his countrymen and first to invent a presidential inauguration.

The father of our country had to decide not only what to wear and what to say but how big the buttons on his coat should be and whether to say anything at all. He had to decide where he wanted to stay. The nation’s capital and first inauguration were then in New York, a long way from Mount Vernon.
Washington was aware he was setting precedent, and, although not everything he did stuck, it’s instructive to see where we started.
In the weeks before his swearing in as the first president on April 30, 1789, Washington wrote letters (yes, by hand) praising the locally made “cloth and buttons” his friend and future Secretary of War Henry Knox had sent him and asked Knox for “six more of the large (engraved) button to trim the coat in the manner I wish it to be.”

He was determined to stay only in “hired rooms” or inns, and not in private homes when he made the trip. “I am not desirous of being placed early in a situation for entertaining,” he wrote James Madison.
Washington worried about the “oceans of difficulties” awaiting him as the first Congress had failed to begin its business, and he lamented his lack of political skill. In fact, Washington’s war service had given him excellent political skills, says Jim Zeender, a long-time registrar in the Exhibits Division of the National Archives, whose excellent blog posts about early letters of the founders I draw from here. Zeender’s posts can be found on the National Archives’ Prologue: Pieces of History blog.

The Library of Congress and Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies also have robust web pages on inaugurations.

In 1789, Washington took the oath on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street before a joint session of Congress and addressed the crowd below:  “Fellow citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives,  among the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties” than the notification of his election as president. His flowery speech continued for 1,400 words.
And later that day, another tradition – of critiquing the president’s inaugural performance -- was born.

U.S. Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania wrote in his diary that Washington “read off his address in the plainest manner, without even taking his eyes from the paper, for I felt hurt that he was not first in everything. He was dressed in deep brown, with metal buttons, with an eagle on them, white stockings, a bag, and sword.”
For his second inauguration in Philadelphia, Washington wore a black velvet suit with black stockings. He was weary and his speech was just 135 words. Maclay had lost his re-election bid, so we don’t have his review.
Inaugurations have taken place in various locations. The first in the new capital city of Washington was Thomas Jefferson’s second inauguration in 1801. He walked over from his boarding house. 

Social butterfly Dolley Madison came up with the first inaugural ball in 1809, but her husband the president was not impressed. “I’d rather be in bed,” James Madison reportedly confided.

We’ve now come to the 57th inauguration. Expectations are low for President Barack Obama’s second act.   

Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse likened second inaugurations to the renewal of wedding vows – “the ceremony might be great, but you can’t ignore what you already know about the groom: He snores, he sniffles and he forgot to pay the electric bill last month.”

While almost nothing could equal the pure joy and excitement of four years ago, this inauguration is a time to look at our history and our future with hope.
An inauguration gives us a day to celebrate us. Let’s enjoy it. We don’t need George Washington’s big eagle buttons. We have apps.

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

We're wealthy but unhealthy -- Jan. 10, 2013 column


It hardly seems fair.

Even though the United States is the wealthiest nation on earth and spends the most per capita on health care, we’re sicker and die earlier than people in other high-income countries, a new report has found.

Surely, you say, our health status lags because so many millions lack health insurance, and the Affordable Care Act -- a.k.a. Obamacare -- will save the day.

Sorry, it won’t. 

Nor is our health disadvantage the result of America’s high poverty rate, our racial and ethnic diversity, or our immigrant population. Recent immigrants are in better health than the native-born, says  “U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health,” released Wednesday by the National Research Institute and Institute of Medicine.

The report goes beyond others that have chronicled our broken health care system to look at diseases, injuries and behaviors throughout life. It’s a 378-page wake-up call about our big, fat, stressed American lifestyle, available for reading from the National Academies Press,

“Americans live shorter lives and experience more injuries and illnesses than people in other high-income countries,” the report says. We lag behind: Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.  

It’s shocking to think that people in other countries enjoy longer, healthier lives than we do, and, says Dr. Steven H. Woolf, professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, it’s unnecessary.

 “Americans are dying and suffering at rates that we know are unnecessary because people in other high-income countries are living longer lives and enjoying better health,” says Woolf, who led the panel that wrote the report.

The report recognizes that we have more people who are uninsured and in poverty and that our health care system is fragmented. It also suggests as possible factors for the health gap the pressured work and child care schedules of American families, our car-oriented neighborhoods, and traffic congestion that leaves us little time or energy to exercise or to shop for nutritious food.  

Even the rugged individualism that made America great may be to blame. Fiercely independent Americans are more likely than our foreign counterparts to engage in risky behaviors. We drive with seatbelts unbuckled, ride motorcycles with the wind in our hair, eat tons of fatty food, occupy the couch, keep our arsenals of guns unlocked, abuse drugs and have unprotected sex.

And so we die earlier even though we’re now less likely to smoke and may drink less than people in other high-income countries.

Our life expectancy is lower because we lose so many people before age 50. Once Americans hit 75, though, they live longer and are less likely to die from cancer and stroke than their foreign counterparts.

Most Americans have no idea that we long have had the highest infant mortality rate among high-income countries or that American adolescents have the highest rates of death from traffic accidents and homicide.

The United States is at or near the bottom in such key health areas as teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, prevalence of HIV and AIDS, drug-related deaths, obesity and diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung disease, and disability.

Wealth and education do not guarantee good health or long life. Our “haves” are sicker and die sooner than “haves” in other developed countries. Non-Hispanic whites in the United States who are well educated and have health insurance lag comparable groups in other affluent countries.

The report calls for more research, more public awareness and a national discussion of the American health disadvantage. We already know what we need to do, but sometimes we need a nudge. 

Higher taxes on cigarettes re-enforced a lot of individual resolve to stop smoking. Efforts by government to rein in our “rights,” such as to purchase giant soft drinks, elicit cries of “nanny state” but may curb sales.

First lady Michelle Obama harvested too much criticism along with the vegetables from her White House garden. We should stand behind her efforts to get kids moving.

It won’t be easy to change behavior. Even the 2010 federal health law explicitly supports the Second Amendment right to own guns and prohibits health providers from collecting or disclosing information related to gun ownership.  

Our national discussion on health must go beyond laws to individual behavior. It can start when President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address. We haven’t a life to waste.

(Marsha Mercer writes from Washington. You may contact her at
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

Pushing term limits for Congress off the cliff -- Jan. 3, 2013 column


Did you hear the one about sleep-deprived octogenarians in the Senate?

There’s no punch line. A Republican House member told his colleagues it would be ridiculous to follow the old fogies in voting for the fiscal cliff agreement. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed, and the joke was on him.

One lesson we can learn from the fiscal cliff drama: Experience matters.

We’ve debated for years whether Washington insiders are a boon or a bane in public life. Too often it seems that the less a congressional candidate knows, or wants to know, about how Washington works, the more voters like him or her. 

The motto of the U.S. Term Limits group, “citizen legislators, not career politicians,” is appealing -- until there’s a crisis that requires political skill.

Were it not for two savvy old political pros, the country would have plunged over the fiscal cliff permanently and landed in the ravine of recession. The New Year’s Day deal to avoid tax hikes and deep automatic cuts in spending was far from perfect, but it was good news for the country.  It was bad news for advocates of congressional term limits and ageists who prefer stereotypes to real life examples.

Two 70-year-olds who had served together in the Senate for about a quarter of a century rose to the occasion. Vice President Joe Biden, formerly the Democratic senator from Delaware, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican senator from Kentucky, reached the compromise that had eluded the president and house speaker.

President Barack Obama isn’t a natural negotiator. Goading when he should have guided, Obama infuriated Republicans every time he opened his mouth. Critics complained that Obama should have been more like Lyndon Johnson, but Obama lacks LBJ’s long years in the House and Senate. Nor does he have Bill Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s gubernatorial experience, coping with legislators from the other party.

As for Speaker John Boehner, he gave up trying to herd the tea-chugging cats in his own party. Boehner, a lad of 63 who came to the House in 1991, grew so frustrated after needling from Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, who’s a decade older with four more Senate years, that Boehner used locker room language to Reid -- in the White House.

The approval rating for Congress hovers below 20 percent, so it’s no big surprise that three out of four Americans tell pollsters they favor limiting how long someone can stay in Congress. But after Arkansas tried to do just that, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that states may not restrict the number of congressional terms. To limit terms requires a constitutional amendment. The Florida legislature last year passed a resolution urging Congress to adopt a term-limits amendment.

The twin public appetites for term limits and the sweet bird of youth can result in odd moments.

While campaigning for his eighth term in Congress, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was asked if he supported congressional term limits of two terms for the Senate and three for the House. Yes, indeed, he said; he’s a big fan. Really?
In November, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, 72, was asked by NBC News’ Luke Russert, 27, whether she and her team were keeping a younger generation of Democrats from taking the House reins. Her deputies, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, are 73 and 72.

“Some of your colleagues privately say that your decision to stay on prohibits the party from having a younger leadership and hurts the party in the long run,” Russert said, and asked for her response. She allowed that his question was “quite offensive” but he probably didn’t realize it.

Pelosi, a formidable fundraiser for Democratic candidates, proved her leadership skills during the fiscal cliff-hanger. She held her Democratic caucus together in support of the agreement, allowing many Republicans to make a show of voting no, pretending they opposed the agreement.

Such theatrics belie the serious challenges that face our country. Thank heavens we still have experienced hands in Congress. Let’s hope they use their political expertise to do right for the country. This is no time for amateurs or snide comments. 

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.