Thursday, January 25, 2018

Can Trump control Trump in State of the Union -- Jan. 25, 2018 column

President Donald Trump faces a tough foe as he prepares for his first State of the Union address Tuesday – and it’s not Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader who lately has seemed a paper tiger.
No, Trump’s worst enemy is himself. The showman has never learned to get out of his own way. His outsized personality casts shadows over everything he touches, even, unfortunately for him, policies people like.
His job approval rating has set records – for being historically low. Only 36 percent approve of the job Trump is doing, the latest Washington Post-ABC News and Gallup polls report. A year after their inaugurations, Barack Obama was at 50 percent, and George W. Bush achieved a stunning 82 percent.
Trump faces a dilemma few, if any, of his predecessors have faced. People are happier with the economy than they’ve been in decades -- but they don’t credit Trump or his policies.
Fifty-eight percent of Americans now say the economy is excellent or good – the highest number in 17 years, the Post-ABC poll said. Traditionally, a president gets credit for a good economy, but so far that linkage has been broken, even though Trump touts the economy at nearly every event.
Trump has become the Rodney Dangerfield of presidents. He gets no respect.
Only 38 percent of people say the Trump administration deserves a great deal or good amount of credit for the economy, while 50 percent say the Obama administration deserves a great deal or good amount of credit, the Post-ABC poll found.
If Trump didn’t boast so much, in effect begging for praise, he might get more. His habit of blaming others for his misfortunes – Democrats, the FBI, Hollywood, the mainstream media – also makes him look petty.
Instead of whining, he could up his own vocabulary and use restraint while tweeting. Sadly, this is as obvious as it is increasingly unlikely.
Americans have become accustomed to the daily diet of boasts, insults and threats from the White House. Many see Trump’s drama as his way of distracting attention from the Russia investigation, but these ploys also overshadow positive trends in employment and the stock market.
Trump has maintained the support of his base but has yet to win over Democrats or independent voters, polls show.
Democrats still struggle to do more than complain about Trump. Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus plan to boycott the speech. Democrats who do attend may wear black in solidarity with the #MeToo movement.
If they’re wise, though, no matter what Trump says, Democrats will maintain decorum. No good would come of stooping to the level of Rep. Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, who shouted “You lie!” at Obama during a joint session speech on health care in 2009.
We’re likely to see Trump extol his first-year achievements, such as the tax law, reduced regulations, jobs he says are returning to the United States and judicial appointments. He may offer an olive branch or two.
He may find moderation more productive in the long term as he finally turns to a major infrastructure improvement plan, a subject that’s dear to Democratic as well as Republican hearts.
He could take another step toward improving his image with Democrats with a solid proposal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, expected to be released Monday.
Schumer said negotiating with this White House is like “negotiating with Jell-o.” But Trump’s comments Wednesday about a multi-year path to citizenship for the immigrants known as Dreamers show compromise may be possible.
Helping Dreamers would be popular, even if it comes with the high cost of billions for a border wall.
Politics permeate State of the Union addresses, and this one will kick off the 2018 congressional campaigns. Trump’s re-election campaign has already run a tough ad against Democrats regarding immigration, so, like it or not, the 2020 presidential campaign is upon us as well.
Trump says he needs more Republicans in Congress to help him pass his agenda, but Democrats, energized by special election victories, hope for a blue wave election, possibly retaking control of the House.
A little restraint could do Trump a world of good legislatively. But only if he can curb his instincts for bare-knuckles politicking.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Another president names his media enemies -- Jan. 18, 2018 column


President Donald Trump built up expectations for his “Fake News Awards” for weeks, but when he finally named names, it was underwhelming.

On Jan. 2 he promised to list “THE MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA” on Jan. 8, then postponed the big reveal nine days.

“The interest in, and importance of, these awards is far greater than anyone could have anticipated!” he tweeted.

Oh, the excitement. Late-night comedians competed to be ranked the worst in Trump’s eyes. Stephen Colbert bought a billboard in Times Square. Two senators excoriated Trump for his assaults on journalism and free speech. 

But then Trump, or someone in the White House, seemed to recognize his latest attempt at media shaming had gotten away from him. His awards were cause for fun, not fear.

His tweet Wednesday night – a straight-forward, “And the FAKE NEWS winners are…” -- linked to a Republican website. The link broke.   

The whole episode was more fizzle than firecracker.  

Trump’s Top 10 list was comprised of old news stories he had called out in tweets over the last year, plus the Russian investigation. If the list proved anything, it was that Trump holds grudges. But we already knew that.

Trump’s list shows his narrow obsession with reporters and news outlets that present news stories he doesn’t like. Trump’s Top 10 included the usual mainstream media suspects – reporters and columnists for The New York Times (two), CNN (four), ABC, Time, The Washington Post and Newsweek. Poor CBS, NBC and MSNBC didn’t rate a mention.

Trump may inadvertently be creating a new category of media hero. At the least it’s good business to be on the receiving end of Trump condemnation.

Michael Wolff was a peripheral purveyor of gossipy tidbits in Manhattan until he wrote “Fire and Fury” a behind-the-scenes look at the dysfunctional president and his first year in the White House. After Trump threatened to go to court to stop publication, booksellers couldn’t keep it on the shelves.

“Where do I send the box of chocolates,” Wolff asked as sales soared and publisher Henry Holt rushed to print more copies.

Look for more buzz and sales of two new books that mine the evils of the Trump effect:  “Trumpocracy” by former White House speechwriter David Frum and “It’s Even Worse Than You Think” by longtime Trump-watcher David Cay Johnston.

Film director Steven Spielberg, sensing the time was right for a movie about truth and the press, rushed to shoot and finish “The Post,” in just nine months.

Starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, the movie tells the story of The Washington Post’s publication in 1971 of the top-secret Pentagon Papers after a court stopped The New York Times from continuing its publication of them. 

“The Post” also serves as a tribute to a woman who found her resolve. Publisher Katharine Graham was trying to keep the Post afloat by taking public the family-owned paper. Her decision to publish the Pentagon Papers helped turn the Post into a national newspaper.

The movie reverberates with the manic, anti-press sentiments of a shadowy Richard Nixon.

So now Trump, who has called the news media “the enemy of the people,” has a sort-of enemies list of his own, a la Nixon.

Nixon’s enemies list, compiled starting in 1971, eventually contained hundreds of names and was a Who’s Who of journalism, academia, government, business, labor and the entertainment industry (Carol Channing, Steve McQueen and Joe Namath, among others).

Being on Nixon’s enemies list was a badge of honor, an essential line years later in someone’s obituary.

These days, as people for better or worse choose their national news reports according to their political views, subscriptions to the liberal New York Times and Washington Post and the conservative Wall Street Journal have soared.

One thing hasn’t changed. News is still the first rough draft of history, with emphasis on rough. When there are mistakes, as there always have been, reputable news organizations still correct their errors -- something Trump rarely, if ever, does.  

Trump’s Fake News awards were of zero consequence. His stringent attacks on the news media, though, may unintentionally give journalism a boost – like another movie, “All the President’s Men” about the Watergate scandal -- and a new generation of journalists reason to get up in the morning.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Much ado about Oprah -- Jan. 11, 2018 column


Not since an obscure senator took the stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention has a single speech caused such a Democratic swoon. Until Oprah.

Back then, a fervent Barack Obama stirred hearts when he said: “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.”

In her moving, nine-minute speech at the Golden Globes last Sunday night, Oprah Winfrey stirred hearts when she put her own humble childhood in the story of the nation’s fitful progress toward racial and women’s equality.  

“So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon!” she thundered. The tour de force brought soaring hopes and a down-to-earth challenge from the incumbent. 

“I’ll beat Oprah,” President Donald Trump said, adding, “I know Oprah; I don’t think she’s going to run.”

We should all hope she doesn’t run – and not because we want a second Trump term. As appealing as Winfrey is, the last thing America needs is another unqualified and untested celebrity in the Oval Office.

Experience still matters, as Trump’s struggles have shown. You wouldn’t let someone with no veterinary training or experience operate on your dog – simply because you admired her attitude. Surely experience in governing should carry as much weight.

At 63, Winfrey has reached the pinnacle of success. Forbes estimates her worth at $3 billion. She has earned $300 million since 2015 just from lending her presence to Weight Watchers. Millions read her magazine and the books she recommends.

She’s the third-most-admired woman on the planet, behind Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, according to the latest Gallup poll. For the record, among men Trump comes in second, behind Barack Obama and ahead of the Pope and Billy Graham.

But what are Winfrey’s public policy positions? She says she’s apolitical and has voted for Republicans as well as Democrats. Smart for business.

She favors tougher gun control measures, LGBT and abortion rights and protecting young adults under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Her lack of government experience means no record on which to judge her. It also means she has no firsthand knowledge of how to get things done in Washington. How much would her policies recycle Obama’s?   

Make no mistake, if Oprah says 2020 is a go, she’d jump to the front of the Democratic line -- mainly because there is no line, just hopefuls milling around.   

Fans have been after her to run for president for years, but Trump’s election got Winfrey actively thinking about it. 

“I never considered the question even a possibility. I thought, `Oh gee, I don’t have the experience, I don’t know enough. Now I’m thinking, `oh!’” Winfrey said in an interview last March.

When Obama won the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, beating supposed frontrunner Hillary Clinton, he was 47 and had no major, or even minor, accomplishments in Washington. That inexperience would haunt his presidency.

But during the campaign he had something Clinton lacked. Oprah endorsed her old friend.

“Because I know him personally,” she told Larry King. “I haven’t done it in the past because I haven’t felt that anybody, I didn’t know anybody well enough to be able to say, `I believe in this person.’”

She added in gracious, Oprah fashion: “I have not one negative thing to say about Hillary Clinton.”

We’ll see if Winfrey can withstand the siren song of becoming the first female president and whether she’ll put herself through the wringer of her first political campaign against an incumbent president who enjoys bullying and tweeting personal insults and lies.

News reports already have questioned Oprah’s CEO skills, her long-time fondness for junk science and whether she looked the other way about sexual harassment in Hollywood. Soul singer Seal asked if Oprah was an enabler of disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein’s despicable behavior. All this in less than a week. 

Winfrey’s inspiring personal story makes real the American dream. We can hope generations of young people – girls and boys – see her as a role model.

But the White House is not a prize America awards its most famous or because we admire someone’s style or business success. That’s a lesson we should have learned by now.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Free college tuition is happening in more states -- on Stateline

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ge Tuition Is Spreading From Cities to States

  • January 05, 2018
  • By Marsha Mercer
Stateline Jan5
Students at the University of Michigan. Kalamazoo Promise, which has sparked a free tuition trend, covers four years of tuition at any public college or university in Michigan or at 15 private colleges in the state.
© Hunter Dyke, The Ann Arbor News via AP
To churn out more workers with marketable skills, an increasing number of states are offering residents free tuition to community colleges and technical schools.
The move also is a reaction to fast-rising tuition costs — increases that stem, in part, from states reducing their financial support of public colleges and universities.
Morley Winograd, president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, a Seattle-based nonprofit, described the movement as “the fastest-growing policy idea in the country” — one with bipartisan support.
“Everybody’s got cheap dirt — but do you have skilled workers?” Winograd said. “That’s the question states face as they recruit new industry.”
But the free tuition push hasn’t produced an economic bonanza for any of the pioneering cities—at least not yet — and some states have struggled to come up with the money to keep their end of the bargain.
The free tuition trend began in 2005 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which launched a privately funded effort to combat its economic decline. The movement has quickly spread: Today roughly 200 localities offer young residents free tuition to local community colleges and technical schools.
In the past two years, 12 states have enacted legislation to join them. The state rush to offer free tuition began with Tennessee in 2015, but other states quickly followed. Arkansas, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, Oregon and Rhode Island have started programs, and Nevada plans to launch one this year. California and Montana last year enacted legislation to create programs but have yet to appropriate funds.
Delaware and Louisiana also offer somewhat more restrictive free college scholarships with additional requirements, such as a minimum college aptitude test score or a clean record.
Free tuition plans typically promise students a free ride if they meet certain requirements, such as maintaining a certain GPA. Most plans only pay for tuition, so students must cover fees, books and other costs.
Most of the programs are “last dollar,” which means a student must obtain and use federal aid, such as Pell Grants or other scholarships, before the program kicks in to cover the rest.
Some states, such as Arkansas and Kentucky, limit their programs to students in selected fields. Arkansas only awards grants to students focusing on science, technology, engineering, math and other subjects employers most value. This year, Work Ready Kentucky is limiting aid to students studying health care, transportation and logistics, advanced manufacturing, construction, and business services and information technology.
“Clearly we’re seeing a lot of momentum right now,” said Dustin Weeden, senior policy analyst with the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, an advocacy group based in Boulder, Colorado.

‘Drive to 55’

Tennessee’s stated goal is to make sure that 55 percent of Tennesseans have a college degree or certificate by 2025. The state started by offering free tuition for two years of community college or technical school to every recent high school graduate in the state. The state in 2016 revised the program to allow a greater number of older adults to attend any of the 27 Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology for free, starting in this coming fall.
The state pays for the programs through an endowment started with $300 million in excess lottery revenue. The program operates on interest from the endowment.
Tuition at four-year public colleges has risen 35 percent since the 2008 school year, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington. In Tennessee, per-student state funding at public colleges and universities declined 18 percent from 2008 to 2016, and the average annual tuition at public colleges and universities rose by more than $3,000 during that period.
Since Tennessee launched its free tuition program, applications and enrollment at the state’s community colleges have soared. More than 33,000 Tennesseans have attended college free. Higher education is now a part of Tennessee’s sales pitch to potential employers, said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
“I can absolutely tell you it figures in our conversations,” he said. Although he could not point to a specific employer won by free college, Krause said: “There’s a buzz now about education that wasn’t there before.”

Mixed Results

But in Kalamazoo, a dozen years of free tuition have yielded mixed results.
Kalamazoo Promise, which is funded by anonymous donors, covers four years of tuition at any public college or university in Michigan or at 15 private colleges in the state. Students who attend Kalamazoo schools every year from kindergarten through 12th grade receive all tuition and fees paid; those who attend grades nine through 12 receive 65 percent of their costs paid.
Tim Ready, a sociology professor and director of the Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations at Western Michigan University, said the first nine years of free tuition, which cost donors $54 million, was “marginally beneficial but not a slam dunk” for Kalamazoo’s economy.
“We had the Great Recession, which makes it hard to determine what the effect of Kalamazoo Promise on the economy has been,” Ready said. Other factors, such as a new university medical school, have played a role in the slowly recovering economy, he said.
Ready believes that free tuition is “necessary but not sufficient” to create economic impact. Between 2005 and 2014, the city’s public school enrollment grew by almost 25 percent (though the number of low-income kids receiving free lunches also increased). Kalamazoo now has more college graduates, and the erosion in its population has stopped.
“Kalamazoo Promise probably did help mitigate the decline in the central city area,” Ready said.
But he cautioned that the progress “is not reaching everybody. There’s a lot of income inequality here.”
In Oregon, which also offers each participating student $1,000 for books and other expenses, the challenge has been finding money to keep the program going.
Oregon Promise, established by the Legislature in 2015, scrambled after its first year, 2016-17, when lawmakers, while increasing funding, appropriated less than needed to continue the program in its original form. Demand had risen more than expected.
The Legislature increased funding from $10 million in the start-up year to $40 million in the next two-year budget, but that was still $8 million short. To compensate, the state set stricter income eligibility limits for new students (current students were grandfathered in).
“That word — promise — is what makes the program really galvanizing,” said Ben Cannon, executive director of the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission.
“States should be very careful about making promises they may not be able to keep,” he said. “When the program has to compete every year or every other year with other worthy needs in the state budget, legislators can find other priorities more compelling.” 

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Trump effect: Women march and run -- Jan. 4, 2018 column


The infinitely quotable Shirley Chisholm once said: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

Chisholm spoke from experience. She shattered the lock good old boys had on power in 1968 when she became the first black woman elected to Congress.

Four years later, she blazed a trail as the first black candidate to run for president in a major party.

Chisholm died in 2005, but her advice still resonates.

In her first campaign, for a seat on city council in Cincinnati, Tamaya Dennard used the hashtag #bringafoldingchair – and won. When she raised her right hand to take the oath of office Tuesday, Dennard’s left was resting on a red folding chair. The picture went viral.

We’re likely to see many folding chairs – figuratively, at least – as women’s opposition to President Donald Trump moves from the streets to the campaign trail.  

Since the Women’s March on Washington and cities around the nation last January, record numbers of women have lined up to run for elective office – most as Democrats.

Nearly 50 women around the country are potential candidates for the U.S. Senate and nearly 400 women for the House, according to a tally based on news reports and political web sites by the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers University. With filing deadlines still ahead, changes are likely.

The center counts 20 women candidates for the U.S. House in Virginia, including six Democrats eager to take on Rep. Dave Brat, R-7th. The Democratic primary is June 12.

Women have been gaining strength in Congress at, well, glacial speed. There were 21 women senators until Tuesday when Tina Smith of Minnesota made it 22, a new record. Five are Republicans, 17 Democrats.

Smith, a Democrat, is the former state lieutenant governor. She was appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton to fill the rest of Sen. Al Franken’s term after he resigned following allegations of sexual misbehavior.

In the U.S. House, 84 of 435 members are women, slightly less than 20 percent.

Women make up 51 percent of the population, and their under-representation in Congress is appalling. But an incremental gain is still a gain. In 1993, there were only two women senators.

Minnesota is the fourth state to have two women senators, along with California, New Hampshire and Washington. Two states – Mississippi and Vermont – have never elected a woman to either the House or the Senate, according to the Center for Women and Politics.  

Today’s women candidates owe a debt of gratitude not only to high-profile leaders like Chisholm but to state legislators and others who struggled in decades past for political and professional equality.    

In 1980, six of the nine women members of the Virginia General Assembly said on the record that “attitudes held by certain of their male colleagues make work difficult or at times affect legislation,” The Washington Post reported.

A woman lobbyist reported an unwelcome kiss on an elevator and a delegate from Northern Virginia recalled a fellow lawmaker asking her to sit on his lap. When she refused, he said her attitude wouldn’t get her far in Richmond.

The male legislators laughed and shrugged off the newspaper story: “Much ado about nothing,” one said.

Another seemed to anticipate today’s “fake news” claims, although with a better vocabulary. “This is creating the news out of half-truths, innuendo and the wishful thinking of some paranoid individuals,” he said.

In 1991, Anita Hill appeared at Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing and accused him of making unwanted advances in the workplace.

Women watching the hearing on TV were infuriated – and motivated – by the way the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee treated Hill. The 1992 election became known as the Year of the Woman when record numbers of women were elected to Congress.

Some say 2018 will be another Year of the Woman. An early indication may be turnout for the next Women’s March on Washington and in cities nationwide Jan. 20.

In Minnesota, Smith has announced she’ll run for a full Senate term in November. In a sign of the times, her potential challengers include two Republican women.

State Sen. Karin Horsley is already on the campaign trail, and former presidential contender and former Rep. Michelle Bachmann is considering a run.

Bring your folding chair.  

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.