Thursday, August 26, 2021

Biden's road is rocky, Trump's is rockier -- column of Aug. 26, 2021


As bad as things look for President Joe Biden these days, Donald Trump may have it worse.

After seven months on the job, Biden’s job approval ratings have plunged as the debacle in Afghanistan, the raging delta variant, the crisis at the border and other calamities take a toll.

Only 47% of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president and 49% disapprove, according to the Real Clear Politics poll average on Thursday.

Such numbers disturb Democrats, but Biden has time and the economy on his side. The midterm elections are more than a year away.

Biden faces an array of crises that challenge his governing skills. Most Americans support getting U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, but the speedy Taliban takeover showed a lack of strategy and preparedness.

Now, however, the administration is working tirelessly to evacuate tens of thousands of Americans and our Afghan allies. Secretary of State Tony Blinken said Wednesday rescue efforts would continue even if U.S. troops leave by the Aug. 31 deadline.

In the war on the pandemic, Biden declared victory too soon. The surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths nationwide has devastated hospitals. But with full government approval of the Pfizer vaccine and others likely soon, more unvaccinated Americans will choose, or be forced, to get the jab, and the vaccinated will get boosters, extending protection.

With luck and barring new variants, the United States should get ahead of the deadly coronavirus and find a new normal way of life next year.

Biden’s massive American Rescue Plan made it through Congress, and House Democrats held together to pass pieces of his ambitious legislative agenda. September will be do-or-die for infrastructure and the budget. The Senate remains a stumbling block, but Biden’s proposals are still on track.

As for Trump, who teases about another presidential bid, he lost the 2020 election by 7 million votes. He also lost his White House megaphone, his favorite social media platforms and much, though not all, the news media coverage he craves.

The sore loser continues to claim falsely he won, and, sadly, many Republicans still believe him, despite numerous recounts and court cases that have turned up no widespread election fraud.

Trump draws large crowds of supporters to his rallies, but his overall approval rating is lower than Biden’s. Only 41% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Trump with 52% unfavorable, in the latest Real Clear Politics’ average of polls.

Trump even got booed briefly Aug. 21 at an Alabama rally, and right-wing talk radio host Alex Jones turned on Trump, for suggesting people might want to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Fewer than 35% of Alabama residents are vaccinated.

“I believe totally in your freedoms. I do. You’ve got to do what you have to do,” Trump said. Raising his voice for emphasis, he said, “BUT, I recommend take the vaccines. It’s good. I did it. Take the vaccines.”

Trump faces mounting personal woes. The Justice Department said in July the IRS must release Trump’s tax returns to a Congressional panel, as some courts have ruled. Trump’s lawyer says they will fight “tooth and nail” to keep the returns private.

The Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol Wednesday released a barrage of requests to the National Archives and seven other federal agencies for information on a wide range of topics. They set a deadline of Sept. 9.

The Democratic-controlled committee plans to examine Trump’s Sept. 29 comment that the far-right Proud Boys group should “stand back and stand by” as well as “documents and communications related to any plan for the President to march or walk to the Capitol on January 6, 2021” and “documents and communications related to the metal stability of Donald Trump or his fitness for office.”

And that’s just the first wave of the inquiry. In their zeal to hold Trump accountable for one of the worst days in American history, Democrats risk overreach, yet it may take only one incriminating document to land Trump and some congressional allies in trouble.

Biden has time to tackle and solve the many crises facing the country. He and Democrats will need to make effective use of that time to remind voters why they chose Biden over Trump.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

One war ends badly as another escalates with hope -- Aug. 19, 2021 column


Images of the fall of Afghanistan and the resulting chaos as tens of thousands of Afghans desperately try to escape the Taliban have shaken many Americans. How, after 20 years of war, could this happen so quickly?

Here at home, the delta variant tightens its deadly grip on the unvaccinated, overwhelming some hospitals and raising death tolls. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines show signs of waning effectiveness. How could this happen?

The short, unsatisfying answer in both cases is circumstances change.

But unlike in Afghanistan where the Taliban’s sudden takeover was a shock, the government insists it has a plan for the next phase of the war against COVID-19.

President Joe Biden and the nation’s health experts Wednesday outlined steps to pressure the 85 million Americans who still have not rolled up their sleeves to do so and to provide booster shots starting with the 150 million adults who are fully vaccinated with the Pfizer and Moderna.

The federal government already has vaccination requirements for federal workers and contractors, medical staff at veterans’ hospitals, active-duty military, reservists and National Guard. Biden now will require vaccinations of all workers who care for Medicare or Medicaid nursing home patients as a condition of federal healthcare payments.

Biden also extended until year’s end federal reimbursement to states for National Guard personnel engaged in COVID-19 emergency activities. He praised health systems, universities and private businesses that require vaccinations and urged others to follow suit.

And he took aim at governors who intimidate school officials over mask mandates, saying federal funds can pay school personnel, if needed.

Although vaccines were initially touted as a two-and-done shield from COVID-19, they were developed before the highly transmissible delta variant became dominant. Recent data indicate the vaccines still protect against severe illness, hospitalization and death. They are not as effective against delta as the earlier virus, though, and protection decreases over time. 

“Having reviewed the most recent data, it is now our clinical judgment that the time to lay out a plan for COVID-19 boosters is now,” Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told reporters. 

“The plan is for every adult to get a booster shot eight months after you got your second shot,” Biden said.

Pending approval from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control’s outside panel of experts, the booster program is slated to begin the week of Sept. 20.

At that time, adults fully vaccinated before Jan. 20 with doses from Pfizer or Moderna will be eligible for a booster. Health care providers, residents of nursing homes and long-term facilities, and the elderly will be at the front of the line. It’s likely those who received the single Johnson and Johnson shot will also need a booster, but authorities are waiting on more data to decide.

Only those with compromised immune systems are currently receiving boosters. The rest of us can safely wait, officials said.

The boosters will be free and given regardless of insurance or immigration status. The government intends to use the 80,000 locations in place to deliver the boosters. About 90% of Americans live within five miles of a vaccination site.  

Some medical professionals worry the dual track of persuading the unvaccinated to roll up their sleeves while providing boosters to the fully vaccinated may confuse the public. Some world leaders say the United States should not offer a third shot while many around the world have not had their first.

But the administration insists we have enough vaccines to inoculate those at home and abroad. The United States has donated more doses of COVID-19 vaccine than all the other countries in the world combined, Biden said, adding we have pledged to give away 600 million doses.

“The threat of the delta virus remains real. But we are prepared. We have the tools. We can do this,” Biden said.

At such a bleak time, it’s encouraging to see the government be straight about the latest data and adjust its plans based on changing circumstances. Doing so should help restore Americans’ trust in their government.

The government sets the strategy. Vaccinations, masks and boosters are our weapons. But each of us will need to take personal responsibility if we are to win the war on COVID-19.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, August 12, 2021

Choosing to fight climate change -- Aug. 12, 2021 column


As if fires in the American West, floods in Europe and more intense storms everywhere weren’t enough of a wakeup call, a United Nations panel Monday issued a “code red” warning on global climate change.

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land,” states the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, urging immediate action to avert more dire effects of climate change.

The report, based on 14,000 studies, the most comprehensive summary ever, was approved by 195 governments. It says human-caused emissions have pushed the average global temperature up 1.5 degrees Celsius since the pre-industrial average.

“We can’t wait to tackle the climate crisis. The signs are unmistakable. The science is undeniable. And the cost of inaction keeps mounting,” President Joe Biden tweeted.

Biden wants to put the United States on a path to net zero greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation is a key contributor to emissions, and the bipartisan infrastructure bill the Senate passed Tuesday includes $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations and $7.5 billion to replace school buses and ferries with lower-emission ones.

A separate $3.5 trillion budget blueprint Senate Democrats passed Wednesday – dubbed the Build Back Better plan – promotes sales of electric vehicles, clean energy manufacturing and a Civilian Climate Corps.

Both bills face hurdles in the House. To some congressional Democrats on the left, the bills are too lean, and to congressional Republicans on the right, they’re too fat.

Republicans continue to insist the climate is always changing, American jobs will be sacrificed, and, besides, our Chinese competitors are worse climate offenders. Our reducing emissions will only benefit them.

With COVID-19 again surging across the country, this may seem the worst possible time to bring up behavioral changes individuals can make to help ameliorate climate change.  

But the changes the pandemic brought to our lifestyles over the last year and a half can be helpful as we consider how we want to live moving forward.

What can one person do to fight climate change?

n  -- Contact your elected representatives

n  -- Eat less meat and dairy

n --  Fly less

n  -- Leave the car at home

Those are among nine steps Imperial College London, a public research university devoted to science, engineering, business and medicine, says individuals can take.  It also proposes reducing energy use, protecting green spaces and planting trees, investing responsibly, minimizing waste by donating items, and talking about the changes you make.

It quotes Al Gore’s mantra: "Use your voice, use your vote, use your choice."

I like the list because it’s straight-forward. I found U.S. government sites so fearful of offending someone they larded up very similar suggestions with “where possible,” “where feasible,” “where affordable,” and “where practical.”

Yes, of course, no one can do what’s impossible or unaffordable, but such qualifiers muddy the message.

Nobody pretends individual actions alone can end climate change, but individuals can raise a sense of urgency, which can lead to change.

Maybe we don’t resume flying to in-person conferences and continue to meet virtually. Embrace Zoom? That, I know, is a reach.

Go on foot or bike to the store. Choose a plant-based diet and make ourselves and the planet healthier. Explore charity organizations or Freecycle groups to give unwanted household items a new home, rather than sending them to the landfill.

“While individuals alone may not be able to make drastic emissions cuts that limit climate change to acceptable levels, personal action is essential to raise the importance of issues to policymakers and businesses,” Imperial says.

Bill Gates writes in his new book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”:

“When somebody wants toast for breakfast, we need to make sure there’s a system in place that can deliver the bread, the toaster, and the electricity to run the toaster without adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. We aren’t going to solve the climate problem by telling people not to eat toast.”

Gates is right. Telling people, “no toast” is a non-starter. But if more of us voluntarily take small steps now, we can help reduce our carbon footprint and stave off disaster.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, August 5, 2021

Cuomo in hell of his own making -- Aug. 5, 2021 column


In Dante’s “Inferno,” hypocrites are found deep in hell, forced to walk in circles while wearing gilded robes that appear dazzling but are heavy with lead.

The eternal punishment reflects hypocrites’ outward profession of virtue, belied by their private corrupt actions.

Dante’s focus was on hypocritical religious leaders, but the punishment could apply to other hypocritical leaders as well.

And that brings us to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the scion of one of America’s great political families, and his stunning descent into political hell.

Just a year ago, as the federal government dithered over how to fight the coronavirus pandemic and New York became its epicenter, Cuomo’s calm leadership was a balm to the nation.

His daily news briefings became must-watch events nationwide, and he was even considered a possible Democratic presidential contender.

Cuomo insisted his sights were set on 2022 and a fourth term as governor, a prize that had eluded his father. Mario Cuomo also served three terms as New York governor but was defeated on his fourth bid in 1994 by Republican George Pataki. Democrats tried twice to persuade Mario Cuomo to run for president, but he declined. He died in 2015.

Son Andrew Cuomo married into political royalty. His ex-wife, Kerry Kennedy, the mother of their three daughters – twins, 26, and a 23 year old -- is a daughter of Robert F. Kennedy. The couple divorced in 2005 after 15 years of marriage.

Publicly, Cuomo was a righteous defender of women, saying God told him he was a feminist “when He gave me three daughters.”

In 2018, he tweeted, “Only a political skeptic could find a reason to disbelieve” Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault decades earlier, when they were in high school.

Calling Blasey Ford’s charges against Kavanaugh “disturbing and deeply concerning,” Cuomo signaled his virtue with such tweets as “We owe it to the American people to #BelieveSurvivors.”

In 2019, he signed into law a revision of New York’s sexual harassment law, removing the requirement that harassment needed to be “severe or pervasive,” which made it easier for victims to seek justice.

We now know there was a lot going on behind closed doors in Albany and elsewhere as Cuomo’s inappropriate behavior went unchecked and covered up.

This bad behavior wasn’t decades ago. The first young woman came forward in December to accuse the governor of kissing her without her consent in 2018. Others followed, some telling stories of more recent harassment.

The slow drip of allegations culminated in a flood Tuesday when the New York attorney general reported, after a meticulous investigation, that Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women.

“I believe these 11 women,” Attorney General Letitia James, a former ally of Cuomo, said, as she released the report of 165 pages and 1,371 footnotes.

“Specifically, we find that the Governor sexually harassed a number of current and former New York State employees by, among other things, engaging in unwelcome and nonconsensual touching, as well as making numerous offensive comments of a suggestive and sexual nature that created a hostile work environment for women,” the report said, adding that the behavior extended beyond his staff to other state employees and members of the public.

Cuomo is resisting calls to resign by President Joe Biden, once an ally, several Democratic governors and members of Congress. If he stays, he likely faces impeachment and removal from office. Plus, four county district attorneys are weighing criminal charges.

Cuomo thus becomes the latest powerful politician to believe the rules don’t apply to them. They never learn.

Cuomo himself seems confused. He apologized in March for making anyone uncomfortable but denies harassing anyone.

His pathetic defense this week is that he comes from a different “cultural and generational” background, claiming his hugging and kissing the young women reflects his Italian-American roots. That’s offensive to those of us who share Italian heritage. At age 63, he claims he sometimes slips and calls someone “honey” or “sweetheart.”

It’s 2021, and he of all people should know the difference between light banter and sexual harassment.

Cuomo’s fall from grace is shocking, but he brought it on himself. Instead of walking in circles, he should clear out his desk.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.