Thursday, November 20, 2014

Immigration Man

President Barack Obama took a historic step in announcing he would take far-reaching executive actions to change immigration policy.  He spoke with the confidence of a man who believed he was doing the right thing.  But his actions have set up a major confrontation with Republicans who have accused the president of an abuse of power.

The president's actions, which will go into effect in the new year, will provide relief for up to five million people living illegally in this country.   “The actions I’m taking are not only lawful, they’re the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican president and every Democratic president for the past half-century,” Mr. Obama said. “To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill.”

At the heart of the president's announcement is a new program for undocumented people who have been in the United States for at least five years and are parents of children who are citizens.  Most of them would be eligible for a new temporary legal status that would allow them to work in the country for three years.  However, they must pass criminal background checks and pay taxes.  "I know some of the critics of this action call it amnesty. Well, it's not," the president said in his prime time address from the White House.  "Amnesty is the immigration system we have today -- millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time."

The president also said he would "build on our progress at the border" with additional resources to help further stem with the flow of illegal immigrants.   He added that deportations of criminals are up 80% over the past six years.  "That's why we're going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mother who's working hard to provide for her kids. We'll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day."

The president also responded to many business leaders by announcing relief for some immigrant workers with special skills.  "I will make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders have proposed. "

The president did not propose a pathway to citizenship.  Instead, in announcing his actions, the president called upon Congress to act on immigration.   The Senate passed a bi-partisan immigration bill eighteen months ago, but the Republican controlled House has refused to vote on the measure because of divisions within the GOP House membership.  Speaker John Boehner has attempted to cobble together a piecemeal approach to immigration, but his members have refused to act.

It is clear, despite all their outrage, the Republican controlled Congress is not going to pass immigration reform.  Pragmatic members of the party know that Latinos are a large and growing segment of the U.S. population that will play an important role in deciding who is elected president in 2016.  But a large faction of the party has been opposed to a larger solution, instead focusing their efforts on border security.  There are currently more than eleven million illegal immigrants in the United States.  About 40% of them entered through airports and overstayed the visas, according to Congressmen Luis GutiĆ©rrez (D-Il), who is elated with the president's actions.

Republican leaders are not so eleated.  Speaker John Boehner released a video response, "The president has said before that 'he's not the king' and 'he's not an emperor," but he is sure acting like one."  Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who helped write the Senate immigration bill, said, "The president's actions now make all of this harder and are unfair to people in our immigration system who are doing things the right way."  Senate Rand Paul (R-Ky) said he would "not sit idly by and let the president bypass Congress and our Constitution."  Earlier, soon to be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell threatened to act, saying, "We're considering a variety of options."

Latinos gathered at the White House, and in cities around the country, to express their support for the president's actions.  Millions of them will soon be able to come out of the shadows of our society and live in peace.  One of them told the Los Angeles Times, "We're going to leave the darkness -- we're going to stop being scared."

The dilemma for Republicans is that if they undo what the president has done they will alienate millions of Latinos and other immigrants.  But that has never stopped them before.

   

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Poltical Road Ahead

Congressional Republicans are already scuffling amongst themselves as they prepare to take control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives next year. One thing is for sure: Republicans enjoyed a big victory at the polls last week, which is quite an achievement for a party that just two years earlier had been in turmoil. 

The Republicans smartly nationalized all of the Senate and House races. It was as if each GOP candidate was running against President Barack Obama, whose national approval rating is in the low 40s. The Republicans mobilized their base and discouraged the Democrat base. In fact, only 36.4 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the midterms, the lowest voter turnout since World War II. 

Remarkably, several Democratic candidates, including in Kentucky, Louisiana and Arkansas, did not embrace their party's leader for fear it would drag them down. This very public strategy only exacerbated the negative perceptions of the president. In fact, the Democratic Senate candidate in Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes, refused to say if she had voted for Obama, but volunteered she had supported Hillary Clinton in 2008.

It is inexplicable why Democratic candidates so severely snubbed the president. After all, they were running as Democrats, and President Obama is the head of their party. And congressional Republicans have an approval rating that is far below the president's!

Democratic candidates could have embraced the 10 million jobs that have been added to the economy as a result of the president's economic policies. They could have pointed to Obama's stimulus package, which halted the country's economic free fall that was the result of President George W. Bush's economic policies. They could have reminded voters that the president saved the U.S. automobile industry, over the opposition of many leading Republicans. Candidates could have pointed to stock prices, which are at an all time high, and gas prices, which are at a recent low. Are most Americans better off than they were when the President Obama took office in January 2009? You bet!

Democratic candidates could have campaigned on the success of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Despite its rocky launch, the ACA is working. Millions of uninsured Americans now have health care coverage, and the growth of health care costs has been slowed. Ironically, the Kentucky version of Obamacare, known as Kynect, is a huge success, yet soon to be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is determined to repeal the law.

Democrats could have been more united on foreign policy. Republicans attacked President Obama's policies toward Russia, Syria, Iran, Iraq and ISIS. Yet Republicans only loudly criticized, they did not offer any constructive solutions to these complex problems. Democrats failed to mention that the Bush invasion of Iraq in 2003 created the chain reaction that led to most of today's crises. While it is legitimate to question some of the president's foreign policy actions, Republican criticisms were primarily designed to score political points.

Republicans exploited the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa by publicly questioning the president's competence. Never mind that it was a Texas hospital that blew it, while the state's Republican governor, Rick Perry, left the state for a fundraising jaunt rather than take charge. There is no more powerful mobilizer of voters than fear, and the GOP tapped into that emotion. The president followed expert opinions that the virus had to be stopped in Central Africa, and closing the US borders would be counterproductive. So far only one person has died of the virus in the United States, and he got it in Africa. Meanwhile, today the US is Ebola free, and the Republicans cries of danger have quieted.

This year's poor election turnout reflects apathy among many of those who formed the Obama coalition that helped him secure victories in two national elections. Fewer Hispanics voted last week than in 2012, perhaps discouraged because meaningful immigration reform has been stuck in Congress (because of House Republicans). Fewer black people voted, perhaps because the president was not on the ballot, or the result of new voter ID laws. Fewer poor Americans voted, perhaps discouraged by the nation's growing income inequality. And fewer young people voted, perhaps because they don't think their vote will change things.

Had Democratic candidates run on the president's record of success, would the election results in some states been different? Probably. The president himself accepts part of the responsibility for the election results. "I think we have not been successful in going out there and letting people know what it is that we're trying to do and why this is the right direction," Obama said on CBS News' Face the Nation. All politicians must ask themselves why, in the world's greatest Democracy, did 60 percent of the country's eligible voters fail to cast a ballot on election day. 

Republicans employed a campaign of deception, distortion and voter suppression to succeed this November. Now that they will be in charge of Congress, and all of its key committees, they will turn their attention to dismantling Obamacare, repealing Dodd-Frank, cutting social programs, passing the Keystone Pipeline bill, enacting tax reform and reducing government regulation. They will refuse to act on meaningful immigration reform, and they will pursue hawkish foreign policy initiatives. In other words, we'll have two more years of politics as usual.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Vote/Voto

It's a race to the finish line, but Republicans seem to have a decisive edge in Tuesday's midterm elections.  Should the Republicans gain control of the Senate, they will control both houses of Congress and the consequences will be dramatic.  

Turnout in the 2014 midterm elections may be a record low.  Yet, the outcome may affect every American.  The gridlock that currently plagues Washington will only increase with Republicans in control of the Senate.  Memo to Democrats: an array of important issues, currently being blocked by the GOP, will either be bottled up or repealed.  

The Democrat president has been stymied because it takes 60 votes in the Senate to end a filibuster that blocks legislation or nominations from passage.  Currently the Democrats are unable to overcome this roadblock because they have a bare majority, and the Republicans have fully leveraged their position.   A Republican majority in the Senate will mean open season for the party.

Take the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which is the law of the land and has been implemented in many states.  Presently, millions of formerly uninsured Americans are now covered by President Barack Obama's signature program.   The law has had dramatically positive results, especially in helping to reduce the growth of health care costs.  While the program is not perfect, it is working.  Yet Senate Republicans, led by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, will be emboldened to kill this law.  They see the ACA as an entitlement that must be eliminated.

Equal pay for women will be a lost cause.  So will attempts to raise the minimum wage.  Governor Chris Christie spoke for most Republicans when he recently said, “I’m tired of hearing about the minimum wage.” He continued, “I don’t think there’s a mother or a father sitting around a kitchen table tonight in America who are saying, ‘You know, honey, if our son or daughter could just make a higher minimum wage, my God, all our dreams would be realized.’”  Yet most economists believe the minimum wage should be increased. 

The Democrat controlled Senate passed an immigration reform bill, but the Republican House, under its Speaker John Boehner, has refused to vote on the measure.  House Republicans want to close the southern borders and deport most illegals.  Their idea of the Dream Act is sending all immigrants home who are here illegally.  They actually believe that the illegals are taking jobs away from able Americans.  

Several important government positions have not been filled because Republicans are sitting on the nominations.  Should the Supreme Court have a vacancy, the GOP will do all they can to block any nomination by President Obama.  They would prefer a nominee who will role back a woman's right to choose, same sex marriage, and allow interest groups to anonymously spend enormous amounts of money on their candidates.  Their nominee would support expansion of voter ID laws, which adversely impact the elderly and minorities, typically Democrats.

If you think you have heard enough about the GOP manufactured scandals of Benghazi and IRS, which have been thoroughly investigated, you better fasten your seat belts.  A Republican controlled Senate will spend millions of taxpayer dollars trying to score political points against Democrats, like Hillary Clinton, the party's probable 2016 presidential candidate.  The will do so by opening new investigations and dragging them out through 2016.   

It seems inexplicable that the "party of no" will gain control of Congress.  Congressional Republicans have an approval rating of 21%, while 69% of those polled last month disapprove of Congressional Republicans.  That is half the president's approval numbers.  Yet the GOP may be rewarded with control of both Houses of Congress.

Following the 2008 Presidential Elections, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, who is currently the Minority Leader, made it his number one priority to destroy President Obama and his agenda.  He calculated that the president would bear the blame for a dysfunctional government, so McConnell did all he could to bollix up the works with partisan tactics, including shutting down the government.  Now, even though he is unpopular in his home state of Kentucky, he is on the verge of being rewarded with reelection.  
 
President Obama has been hammered by the GOP for his handling of ISIS, the ruthless terrorist group that has gained control of significant territory in Syria and Iraq.  But it was the Republican President George Bush who lied to America to begin the Iraq war, which led to this mess.  Had the president given arms two years ago to the so-called moderate factions fighting Syria's government, there would have still been an ISIS and Obama would have been blamed for arming the group.

Republicans are critical of the president's foreign policy.  For instance, the removal of American combats troops from Iraq.  Yet, the troop withdrawal was in accordance with a status of forces agreement negotiated by Bush.  

Speaking of President Bush, his economic policies, based on traditional Republican principles and ideals, led to the worst recession this country has had since the Great Depression.  The "trickle down" economic theory espoused by Republicans has not worked, and has led to a further gap in this country between rich and poor.  President Obama has dug this country out of the deep economic hole he inherited, by increasing employment, reducing the deficit, and putting tougher banking regulations in place on "too big to fail" type institutions.

To those Democrats who don't think this election is important enough for them to exercise their precious right to vote, especially African Americans, Latinos, the young, and women, they will only have themselves to blame for what comes next.   

Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween in NYC

As daylight broke over New York's Upper East Side Friday morning it revealed a most eerie sight.  There they were, hanging on railings, peeking through windows, resting on stoops, and climbing facades. 
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Ghosts, goblins, mummies and skeletons.  They have once again taken their positions, each well rested after a year in hiding.  This is the day when children, from all around the metropolitan area, will descend on these few blocks around East 91st Street and Park Avenue.
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Children, wearing masks and costumes, will jam these sidewalks, going door to door carrying baskets brimming with an ever growing collection of candy and treats.  Most will be escorted by parents, many of whom will be dressed in costumes of their own.  Thousands of people will pour out of the surrounding apartment buildings, while many will arrive on buses or by foot.
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Most trick-or-treaters will not be deterred by the scary figures that loom menacingly all around them, especially those disguised as superheroes!  The humungous spiders, bony skulls and wild animals will not get in their way.  These streets will teem with diverse characters for hours, until the last pieces of candy and treats are distributed to joyous young girls and boys.  Then quiet will slowly return to this peaceful neighborhood.  Lights will go out in the windows that overlook the sidewalks and streets.  And the ghosts, goblins, skeletons and mummies will soon go into hiding for another year.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Midterm Madness

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and the Republicans are capitalizing on every crisis, foreign and domestic.  With less than two weeks to go before the midterm elections, Republicans are perfectly positioned to win control of the U.S. Senate because the president is unpopular.

Republican Congressional candidates, from North Carolina to Iowa, are running against Barack Obama rather than their opponent.   Turnout in midterm elections is traditionally poor.  All Republicans have to do is mobilize their base by keeping the focus on President Barack Obama, pounding away at him with their message of incompetence and detachment.   If the Democrat base does not turn out, which appears likely, control of the Senate will change hands. 

Nothing mobilizes a population more than fear, and that's where the crises come in.  Republicans have seized on Ebola.   Congressman Louie Gohmert, R-Tx, along with other members of Congress, has called for a travel ban on citizens traveling from Western Africa to the United States.  The president has said he is open to the idea, but is currently relying on the judgment of most medical experts who say such a ban would be counterproductive.  "This president, I guarantee you, we're going to find out, he has cut a deal with African leaders.  They're going to bring people in," Ghomert told conservative media host Sean Hannity. 

It was noteworthy that Congressional Republicans raced back to the Capitol from their break for a hearing on the Ebola crisis, yet they have been unwilling to debate the issue of America's response to ISIS, the Islamic terrorist group that has threatened much of the Middle East.  Instead, they have attacked the president for his lack of leadership in handling the ISIS crisis.   

There is no question that most Americans are weary of Washington gridlock.  A recent poll found that 70% of "likely voters" disapprove of Congressional Republicans, while 61% disapprove of Congressional Democrats.  Meanwhile, 53% disapprove of the president's performance.  No wonder most voters will stay home on November 4. 

This election is not about issues--it is about politics.  Polls show that a majority of Americans would not repeal Obamacare.  In a moment of candor, Ohio Governor John Kasich, a potential Republican presidential candidate, was asked about repealing Obamacare.  "That's not going to happen," he told the Associated Press.  "The opposition to it was really either political or ideological...I don't think that holds water against flesh and blood, and real improvement in people's lives."  Later in comments to the Washington Post, Kasich, perhaps realizing he had been too honest, said he would repeal Obamacare.  "If the House and Senate (are controlled by Republicans) and we have a Republican president, Obamacare will be repealed flat out," he said.  "And it will be replaced."  Kasich was back on message.

Obamacare has been a big success in Kentucky, where it is a state exchange known as Kynect.  Yet, Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, who is in a tight race for reelection in that state, denounced Obamacare in a recent debate.  "The best interest of the country would be achieved by pulling out Obamacare, root and branch," he said.  "Now with regard to Kynect, it's a state exchange.  They can continue it if they'd like to.  They'll have to pay for it because the (federal) grant will be over."  These remarks were no doubt unsettling for the more than 400,000 Kentuckians who have signed up for health insurance through Kyneck.  But McConnell is more interested in the politics of the issue. 

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, also a likely Republican presidential contender, had a moment of candor when he expressed frustration with all the talk of increasing the minimum wage to the Chamber of Commerce, a largely Republican group.  “I’m tired of hearing about the minimum wage,” Christie said. “I really am. I don’t think there’s a mother or a father sitting around the kitchen table tonight in America saying, ‘You know, honey, if our son or daughter could just make a higher minimum wage, my God, all of our dreams would be realized.’ ”  Democrats have been leading efforts to increase the minimum wage across the country as a way to address income inequality.  But Christie was clearly more interested in the politics of the room he was addressing.

Should the Republicans win the Senate this election, they will control both houses of Congress for the next two years.  The result will be further gridlock, more partisanship, and more frustration for all Americans.  But the Republicans will have what they want most, a political victory.  

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The African Elephant's Last Days

The African elephant is a magnificent creature, but its time on earth is rapidly coming to an end. The African elephant population has decreased by more than 60 percent over the past decade. Just in the past three years, ivory-seeking poachers have killed more than 100,000 elephants. If the slaughter continues at this pace, the African elephant will be extinct in 11 years! These may well be the last days for the African elephant.
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This is the powerful message that Oscar award winning director Kathryn Bigelow drives home in her important animated short film entitled "Last Days." The film premiered Saturday night at the New York Film Festival. Following the screening Bigelow told the audience, "The urgency is great, time is of the essence."


"Last Days" reveals that the proceeds from much of the poaching goes to fund terrorist organizations, like the Somalia based al-Shabaab. One year ago, al-Shabaab struck the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, brutally massacring 67 men, women and children. Thie Westgate tragedy is the starting point for this compelling film, which then tells the poaching story in reverse. 

Al-Shabaab makes millions of dollars from poaching, and lightly armed park police cannot stop the heavily armed poachers. Journalist Peter Godwin, who appeared in the post screening panel discussion, described poaching as "an extension of war." Godwin, who was born in central Africa, said that there were 100,000 elephants in southern Tanzania during the early 1970's, now there are only 13,000. Poachers not only shoot elephants, which are easy targets because they are communal, they also lace watering holes with arsenic. Godwin said, "We are rushing toward the end game.

Focus in this great tragedy is now shifting to curtailing demand. China is a huge importer of ivory, and its demand has increased along with its growing wealth. Peter Knights, the executive director of WildAid, has enlisted the aid of Yao Ming, the ex-NBA player, and CCTV, the government run television network, to spread awareness in China. CCTV has agreed to run "Last Days." Earlier efforts by conservationists to cut demand for shark fin soup in China, which has been popular there since the Ming dynasty, have worked. 

Ivory is also popular in the United States, and the New York City borough of Manhattan is the second largest market in the country. But federal and state laws are not stringent enough to significantly impact the thriving ivory trade in Manhattan, which finds much of its ivory exported to other countries. 

Bigelow hopes that the release of "Last Days" in the United States, on the web and on television, will increase awareness of this urgent problem. She hopes to reach both consumers and politicians. Bigelow told the audience that her interest in the subject was the result of a conversation with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. "Chelsea had just returned from sub-Saharan Africa, where poachers killed herds of elephants by cyanide poisoning," Ms. Bigelow said. "After our conversation I felt compelled to raise awareness." 2014-09-28-photo38.JPG
As Peter Knights observed, "This is not about facts, this is about emotion." If that is the case, Bigelow's "Last Days" will send a powerful message across the globe that will extend the life of the African elephant on earth.