Thursday, January 30, 2014

Michelle Obama: rescuer-in-chief? -- Jan. 30, 2014 column


President Barack Obama says that from now on he’ll do the chief executive thing his way -- with Congress if possible, without Congress when necessary.
And what about Michelle Obama? Scorned as a “feminist nightmare” by Politico last November because she has focused on fitness, health and gardening instead of elbowing her way into policy fights, what’s her next step?  
This just might be the year the first lady rescues her husband from terminal lame duck status by showing him how to work around Congress and, more importantly, by helping Democrats get elected in November’s congressional midterm elections.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Obama praised his wife’s Let’s Move project as a model for how he now intends to get things done without congressional support.  
“As usual, our first lady sets a good example,” he said. “Michelle’s Let’s Move partnership with schools, businesses and local leaders has helped bring down childhood obesity rates for the first time in 30 years – an achievement that will improve lives and reduce health care costs for decades to come.” 
It was a canny comparison not only because the first lady is more popular than the president but because Let’s Move is effective without being threatening. Obama was telegraphing the folks at home that his plan to act unilaterally by executive order is nothing to be afraid of – despite what his critics say. 
Michelle Obama may be the fourth most powerful woman in the world, according to Forbes magazine, but she still seems more mom-in-chief than power player. There’s no Michellecare the way health care reform was Hillarycare in the Clinton years. Forbes ranks Obama behind Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany; Dilma Rousseft, president of Brazil, and Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Hillary Clinton is fifth on the list.

Michelle Obama often gets more news coverage for her hair and clothes than for her views and actions. Fashion writers loved the dark green dress and jacket she chose for the State of the Union. In wearing the ensemble by Azzedine Alaia, she was giving the Tunisian-born, Paris-based designer a business boost. New York University finance professor David Yermack calculated in a 2010 study that when Mrs. Obama wears an outfit, she creates $14 million in added value for the lucky designer.

I’d like to see her wear American designers – especially on a night when her husband is touting Made in America products. A least the ensemble wasn’t brand new: She’d worn it for a "Nightline” interview and White House tour with Barbara Walters in December 2012.

After the State of the Union, the Obamas hit the road in opposite directions. He set out for Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Tennessee to build support for his policies. She went on a three-day trip, prospecting for campaign gold in California.  

In the Los Angeles home of Phil Rosenthal, creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Mrs. Obama warned that her husband wouldn’t be able to achieve his goals if both houses of Congress go to Republican control in November.

“Let’s be clear: Barack cannot do this alone sitting by himself in the Oval Office,” she said, according to news reports. “So make no mistake about it, it matters who is elected to represent us in Washington. It matters.”

She urged about a crowd of about 200 to “write a big, fat check.” The guests, who included Barbra Streisand and her husband James Brolin, paid as much as $32,400 each to attend the fundraiser benefiting the Democratic National Committee.

Most analysts say the House is likely to remain in Republican hands and the Senate – where six seats could shift the balance -- could go either way. Michelle Obama warned that the health law would be repealed and same-sex marriage threatened if Republicans were in charge on Capitol Hill.

“You can write a check, do you hear me?” she told the crowd, the Los Angeles Times reported. “That’s what you need to do; I’m serious. Write a big, fat check. Write the biggest check you can possibly write.”

That’s one way to fight economic inequality and redistribute wealth. The night’s event reportedly brought in nearly $700,000 for the Democratic Party.

© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Can Obama hit reset with State of the Union address? -- Jan. 23, 2014 column


Here’s something you will NOT hear from President Barack Obama Tuesday night: “I must say to you that that the state of the union is not good.”

That was the dour assessment of President Gerald Ford in his 1975 State of the Union address, five months after Richard Nixon resigned and Ford moved into the Oval Office.

“Millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high, and sales are too low,” Ford said.

The bad news kept coming. He lamented a rising federal deficit and debt and our dependence on foreign energy.  And, he said, “Some people question their government’s ability to make hard decisions and stick with them; they expect Washington politics as usual.”

A year later, in 1976, Ford tried again. “The state of our union is better…but still not good enough,” he said. So much for presidential candor.  Voters turned him out for a political outsider named Jimmy Carter that fall.

Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address comes as polls show many Americans think the country is on the wrong track.  Only 45 percent approve of the way Obama is handling his job, and 53 percent disapprove, the latest Associated Press-GfK poll reported Thursday.

“Nice guy, so-so president,” the AP concluded.

Obama is expected to try to use his one-man show Tuesday to hit reset.  He can recite some good news : Unemployment is down; Congress has passed a two-year budget deal and $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill, and about 2.1 million people have enrolled in health insurance plans on the new exchanges.

He’ll stand before a joint session of Congress, but his real audience is middle class voters, who hold the key to whether he can turn around his dismal job approval ratings before they chill Senate Democrats’ prospects in the midterm elections.

“The State of the Union is not just a conversation with Congress but a conversation with you, the American people,” Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, says in a video on the White House website, which invites viewers to “watch, then say you’re in.”

The Constitution requires that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information on the state of the union,” but it doesn’t require a high-profile speech. Presidents basically mailed in a written annual message until Woodrow Wilson delivered his 1913 message in person.  

Other 20th century presidents embraced new technology to connect. “Silent” Calvin Coolidge’s 1923 speech was the first broadcast on the radio. Harry Truman’s 1947 address was the first televised, and George W. Bush’s in 2002 was the first broadcast live on the Internet.

To reach its target audience, the Obama White House promises more digital bells and whistles than ever.

There will be an “enhanced version” of the address with graphics, data and charts that can be viewed on any device. Viewers may comment on social media during the speech and ask questions of administration experts afterwards. Obama will take questions in a Google+ Hangout Jan. 31.

Almost none of Obama’s 2013 State of the Union proposals got through Congress. He’ll renew his call for immigration reform and a hike in the minimum wage. He’ll also urge Congress to extend jobless benefits and expand workforce training. He calls 2014 a “Year of Action” and vows to use executive actions to help the middle class if Congress balks.   

Naturally, Republicans in their responses to Obama’s address will dramatize their opposition and their contention that he and Democrats have been an abject failure. Fox News host Sean Hannity reportedly will attend the address as the guest of Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tex.

Some Democratic House members are inviting jobless Americans as guests. First lady Michelle Obama has invited about two dozen guests, several of whom can expect to be mentioned by the president to illustrate his points.

A year ago, Obama declared, “We can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger.”

Expect no less Tuesday.  But it may take specific proposals and concrete action --not just an upbeat tone and tweets -- for Obama to convince Americans that he can make it even stronger.    

© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

LBJ's war on poverty -- and ours -- Jan. 15, 2014 column


President Ronald Reagan liked to say America fought a war on poverty and poverty won.

Latter-day Reaganites have been quoting their hero a lot on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of unconditional war on poverty.

Like most glib remarks, though, Reagan’s famous line isn’t entirely accurate. The war on poverty certainly hasn’t ended poverty, but the programs and benefits its critics malign have helped reduce the pain of poverty for millions.  

“Poverty has declined by more than a third since 1967,” President Barack Obama’s Council on Economic Advisers reported in its assessment of the War on Poverty at 50. When tax credits, food stamps, housing assistance and other benefits are taken into account, 16 percent of the population was living in poverty in 2012, down from 25.8 percent in 1967, the council said.

Don’t get me wrong: These statistics are nothing to celebrate. It’s deplorable that nearly 50 million Americans – one in six of us -- struggle with economic deprivation. Even more disturbing is that many are stuck at the bottom of the ladder. Social mobility is greater in Canada than in our land of opportunity.   

The sad fact is that many Americans still live “on the outskirts of hope,” as Johnson said in his 1964 State of the Union address. But the solution is not to abandon the fight or yank the safety net.

“Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity,” Johnson said half a century ago, and it should be ours as well. By “our task,” LBJ did not mean only members of Congress. He urged all Americans to join in the effort.

Most Americans didn’t join -- beyond paying their taxes and perhaps giving to charity. The work of helping the poor falls heavily on churches and community organizations, but they can do only so much.

It needs to be said that some commentators and politicians, Reagan among them, made political hay by focusing on abuses of the welfare system, which fed the public’s cynicism. When he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, Reagan talked about a “welfare queen” who supposedly cheated the system by claiming benefits under dozens of false names.

Investigative reporters were unable to find the woman, but the damage was done. Americans are generous by nature but we hate squandering our tax dollars.  

Republicans and Democrats mostly have attacked each other instead of poverty. Today, there’s a growing consensus that education and jobs must be part of the solution. Two potential GOP presidential candidates -- Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., – have begun staking out positions that might actually amount to something.     

Ryan, the House Budget chairman, believes current welfare programs isolate the poor, who need to be “reintegrated” into society, although he hasn’t provided details. He favors vouchers for housing and schools, as he does for Medicare. Rubio wants to consolidate all federal anti-poverty funding into one agency that would send the money to the states to run their own poverty programs.

These ideas have been floated for years as ways to dismantle the welfare state. Reagan railed against the government’s fostering dependency just as tea party enthusiasts do now.

Obama believes that government has an important role in preventing poverty, especially with early childhood education. But the former community organizer also knows that improving people’s chances in life requires more than proclamations from Washington.

“It’s important that our faith institutions and our businesses and the parents and the communities themselves are involved in designing and thinking through how do we move forward,” the president said, adding that it’s crucial that poverty programs actually work.

“If they don’t work we should try something else,” he said, acknowledging that supporters often resist giving up on failed programs.

We know that doing three simple things practically guarantees that someone won’t live in poverty: finish high school, get a job and marry before starting a family. And yet generations of Americans have missed the message.    

No one can be satisfied with the status quo. It is time to consider new approaches to break the still-obstinate cycle of poverty.

Our task, as LBJ said five decades ago, is to work together to replace despair with opportunity.  

©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Saving MLK Day from crass commercialism -- Jan. 9, 2014 column


The federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. got off to a rocky start, to put it mildly.

In 1986, its first year, only about half the states observed the holiday. In King’s hometown of Atlanta, boxing promoter Don King celebrated the new holiday and the civil rights leader who dedicated his life to nonviolence with, you guessed it, a fight night.

The seven-hour evening, supposedly a tribute, was a “grotesque farce,” author Jack Newfield wrote in “The Life and Crimes of Don King: The Same of Boxing in America.”

Don King “put on seven fights with out-of-shape heavyweights who weighed an aggregate of 3,212 pounds. Every fight stank,” Newfield wrote. In the main event between Tim Witherspoon and Tony Tubbs, Tubbs “acted like he was trying to honor Dr. King by winning the Nobel Peace Prize in the ring.”

After such an unpromising start, it’s remarkable that the King holiday has mostly risen above the crass commercialism that plagues our other holidays.

Retailers seem far more willing to use Presidents Day – originally commemorating the February birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln -- to sell us cars, mattresses and TVs. In contrast, the King holiday summons us to reflect and to give our time making our communities better.

On Jan. 20, bells will toll, churches will hold services and hundreds of thousands of Americans will spend at least part of the King holiday volunteering on community service projects.  

King’s statement that “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve” animates the day.  People young and old will clean up streams, deliver meals, spruce up schools and community centers, collect food and clothing and sign up mentors, among other things. 

But just as it took years to create the holiday, it took years for the holiday officially to become a day of national service.

Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, first introduced legislation to establish a holiday honoring King four days after he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. In 1983, Congress approved the holiday, after ugly opposition in the Senate from Jesse Helms.

The North Carolina Republican filibustered, charging that King was a Marxist who had Communist connections. Helms distributed 300 pages of documents, which Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York famously threw to the Senate floor, stomped on and called “a packet of filth.”

On Nov. 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill making the third Monday in January the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday, starting in 1986. Not until 1999, though, did all 50 states observe it.

Even today, states observe the holiday in different ways. For years, Virginia celebrated  King and Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on the same day. In 2000, the state legislature separated the holidays, and Virginia state offices now are closed for King on the third Monday in January and Lee and Jackson on the preceding Friday. 

Alabama celebrates Lee and King together, then Confederate Memorial Day in April and the birthday of Jefferson Davis in June.

As for the day of service, a couple of weeks after the first federal King holiday in 1986, sociologist Marion J. Levy Jr. of Princeton University wrote a letter to The New York Times.

“I propose we declare the holiday a ‘day on,’ rather than a ‘day off,’” the professor wrote. His idea was that everyone would work on the holiday and those above the poverty line would send their day’s pay to a special fund benefiting housing, education and other projects.

Levy was rowing against the tide when he suggested that people give up not only their day off but also their wages – but his idea of the holiday as a “`day on, rather than a ‘day off’” stuck. The phrase appears frequently in connection with the day of service.

In 1994, Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act, creating the national day of service, and President Bill Clinton signed it.   

It’s a day when we all can be great because we can serve.  And that’s a real tribute to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. 

© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.