Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The State of the Union

For the first time in his presidency, President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address to a Republican controlled Congress.  Yet he spoke with confidence and ease as he laid out a progressive agenda for the final two years of his presidency.

Noting that the U.S. economy had rebounded from the 2007-2009 recession, the president said, "the shadow of crisis has passed," as he challenged Congress to take up a series of domestic programs targeted at the middle class.  "Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?" the president asked.  "Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort."

In his address, the president called on Congress to enhance tax credits for education and childcare, to make community college free for most students, and to impose new taxes and fees on the very high-income earners and financial institutions.  The president also called for more investment in America's infrastructure.  At one he chided the Republican's push to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast.  "Let's set our sites higher than a single oil pipeline," the president said.  Republicans have repeatedly criticized the president for dragging his feet on Keystone, which they claim will lower gas prices and add thousands of jobs.

The president asked for Republicans to "turn the page," citing recent improvements in the economy, including job growth, falling deficits, and a dramatic slowing of the growth of health care costs.  He also defended the Affordable Health Care Act, his recent executive action on immigration, and his move to normalize relations with Cuba for the first time in 50 years.  According to several new polls, the president has enjoyed a boost in his approval ratings since his party's defeat in November's midterm elections.   "The verdict is clear," the president said, "Middle-class economics works.  Expanding opportunities works.  And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics does not get in the way."

On foreign policy, the president called on Congress to pass a resolution that would authorize him to use military power against the Islamic State, or ISIL.  Many have called on Congress to debate America's role in the fight on terror, but to date it has not done so.  The president warned that, "The effort will take time...It will require focus.  But we will succeed."  The president also urged Congress not to pass additional sanctions on Iran before negotiations on its nuclear program are finished.

Throughout his address, President Obama was comfortable and at times cocky.  When he noted he has no more campaigns to run, a cheer came from the Republican side of the chamber.  The president responded, "I know because I won both of them."  This ad-libbed retort angered many Republicans.  One noted later, "You can't take politics out of a politician even if he doesn't have any more elections in front of him."

While the president's address was ambitious and progressive, many of his proposals are not likely to go anywhere in a Republican controlled Congress that is focused on undoing or rolling back the president's Affordable Health Care Act, immigration executive actions, and investigating Benghazi and the IRS "scandals."  Republicans have the numbers and they are determined to keep President Obama, Democrats and likely presidential frontrunner Secretary Hillary Clinton on the defensive all the way to the 2016 national elections.

After all, you can't take the politics out of a politician.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Interview

Seeing a movie is always a wonderful way for many families to spend Christmas Eve.  And this year many gathered in front of a television set to watch The Interview streamed on the web.

The Interview has been the source of enormous controversy in recent weeks.  The plot of this silly comedy is centered on an attempt to assassinate North Korea's dictatorial and maniacal leader, Kim Jong Un.  Its stars, Seth Rogen and James Franco, who play show producer Aaron Rapoport and talk show host Dave Skylark, land an interview with Un because the leader is a big fan of their show. 

The morning after host Skylark announced he had secured a worldwide exclusive interview with Un, the CIA came knocking at his door.  "We want you to take him out," the beautiful woman agent tells Skylark and producer Rapoport, who were recovering from an all-night orgy.  This may have been the sanest and funniest moment of this otherwise idiotic movie. 

To describe The Interview as sophomoric would be a compliment for this film that is replete with sex, references to masturbation, penises, and offensive language.  In fact, the foul language is so overused that George Carlin must be rolling over in his grave. 

Yet the movie has been caught up in an unprecedented global controversy involving hacking, censorship and threats against theaters slated to show the film.

At first, embarrassing emails were released by a group claiming to be the "Guardians of Peace" involving Sony executives and several key Hollywood figures.  Several news publications and television programs published the painfully candid and snarky emails, which then became front page fodder for tabloids around the world.   The media was then attacked for releasing confidential communications, all to no avail.

As The Interview's release date approached, theaters received retaliatory threats.  In response, major theater chains cancelled their showings and Sony dropped its plans for a Christmas Day release.   This decision brought on cries of censorship.

President Barack Obama said Sony's move was a mistake.  American intelligence concluded that the North Koreans had been centrally involved in the Sony hacking and threats.  Under enormous pressure, Sony reversed itself and arranged to release the movie on Christmas Eve in 331 independently owned theaters and online. 

Viewership for The Interview has been strong, giving Sony an unexpected Christmas present.  But the studio will likely lose $20 million in revenue this holiday weekend according to some estimates.

This all seems like a bizarrely outlandish Hollywood movie plot, but it is not.  It is most unfortunate that the principle of artistic freedom is being debated over such a bad movie.   Because of its alleged actions, North Korea has created enormous interest in a film that, otherwise, may have quickly turned into a DVD/Blue Ray release. 

Thank you North Korea, and bah humbug Kim Jong Un.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Obama on a Roll

President Barack Obama is entering the fourth quarter of his presidency, one marked by partisan divisions that have frustrated most Americans. But the president, as he makes the turn for the finish line, has already wracked up an impressive list of accomplishments during his tenure despite the blindly fierce Republican opposition.
Since his party's defeat in the midterm elections, President Obama has taken the initiative. He has announced that the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba, as well as an executive order on immigration, and a climate treaty with China. Each of these announcements is historic in their own right. And together they signal the president is not going quietly into the night.
President Obama has enjoyed a great deal of good news these past six weeks. Government estimates show that the U.S. economy grew at a spectacular 5 percent, and the Dow Jones stock index reached record highs, fueled in part by corporate profits, which have been up year-over-year for 12 straight quarters.
Unemployment is at 5.8 percent, the lowest rate since the president took office. Total nonfarm payroll increased by 321,000 in November, led by professional and business services, retail trade, health care, and manufacturing. Meanwhile, fuel prices continue to drop as the price of gas has fallen for 89 consecutive days. AAA says that this is the longest streak on record, and that prices have fallen 36 percent since last April.
Falling gas prices have hit both Russia and Iran hard, along with U.S. led sanctions. Just a few months ago Republicans were praising President Vladimir Putin for his leadership traits as Russia annexed Crimea and caused unrest in parts of Ukraine. Now Putin is struggling mightily to keep his economy afloat. Those same Republicans criticized the president for attempting to negotiate a nuclear treaty with Iran. Yet falling gas prices and tough sanctions have brought the Iranians closer to making a deal than any saber rattling ever did.
The president's strategy for handling ISIS has stopped that group's momentum. The president formed a coalition of countries to launch targeted air attacks, and he helped nudge the failing Iraqi government back from the brink. He has also kept America safe from terrorism, and he made the killing of Osama bin Laden a top priority.
North Korea posed a serious threat with its alleged cyber-hacking of SONY's emails. This in response to a movie, The Interview, which is a comedy focused on North Korea's leader. But it has been reported that President Obama, who promised a proportional retaliation, discussed the matter with China. Suddenly, North Korea lost its Internet connection. Now the movie will be released after all on Christmas Day.
And the president's singular greatest legislative success, the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, has expanded healthcare to millions of uninsured Americans, and it has helped significantly lower the rate of growth of health care costs. His 2009 stimulus package put the breaks on the crashing economy, and his auto bailout preserved thousands of jobs. Today, the U.S. auto industry is healthy. Each of these initiatives was done in spite of furious opposition from Republicans.
Lately President Obama has looked like that confident leader American voters thought they elected way back in 2008. Since his first day in office he has been attacked continuously by conservatives. He has been accused by many of his Republican opponents of being born in Kenya, a Muslim, an emperor, disengaged, distant, a liar, and ill-prepared for the office. On the very day the president was first sworn into office, Republican leaders vowed, in a secret meeting, to do all they could to block, delay, denounce and defeat him. For them it was war.
Throughout his first six years in office, the president has remained persistent, while being buffeted by the partisan winds, and the thunderous exhortations of so-called experts and conservative political pundits. Of course, in today's media landscape, anyone can be a critic and get airtime.
Even his supporters sometimes express frustration because the president has refused to act for the sake of acting, shoot from the hip, or jump to conclusions. His approach, no matter the issue, has been measured, studied, thoughtful, cerebral and yes, lawyerly.
Beginning in January, Republicans will be the majority party in both houses of Congress. They will try to repeal Obamacare, undo the president's immigration order, stop normalization of relations with Cuba, pass the Keystone Pipeline, cut federal social programs,and spend taxpayer dollars re-investigating Benghazi and the IRS. There will be the usual shrill denunciations of the president, and some GOP members may move to impeach him.
Of course, for President Obama, it'll be just another day at the office.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Black Lives Matter

"Black lives matter."  "I can't breathe."  These are the words that have been chanted by protestors from New York to California.  Demonstrations continue nationwide against the deaths of young black men at the hands of police officers. 

On Wednesday a Staten Island grand jury decided not to prosecute police for the choking death of 43 year-old Eric Garner, an African American, in Staten Island last July.  Police were attempting to arrest Garner for illegally selling untaxed cigarettes.  A video surfaced showing several police officers pulling Garner to the ground, one using an illegal choke hold.   Garner can be heard on the video saying he could not breathe as many as eleven times.

In August a medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide, saying "the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police." The examiner also noted that asthma, heart disease and obesity were contributing factors in the death.  Despite the video and the medical examiner's findings the grand jury, after a day of deliberations, decided that there was not enough evidence to charge a police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, with a crime. 

The decision came on the same day as a memorial service for 12 year-old Tamir Rice was held in Cleveland, Ohio.  More than 100 friends and family members gathered to remember the young African American boy who had been shot dead by police last month.  Rice had been carrying a pellet gun when a bystander phoned 9-1-1.  A Cleveland police car sped to the scene where Rice stood and shot him within two seconds, according to accounts.

For days demonstrations have been held from coast to coast to protest a Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury decision not to charge a police officer for the shooting death of black teen Michael Brown, who was unarmed.   Many eyewitness accounts say that Martin had his hands raised when officer Darren Wilson, who has subsequently resigned from the Ferguson police force, gunned him down.  Other witnesses say the already wounded Martin was charging Wilson, who was some distance away.

These deaths were a reminder for protestors that the criminal justice system doesn't treat blacks and whites equally.  ProPublica analyzed FBI records and released alarming findings.  The site reported, "The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police."

In reaction to the Garner decision, Wednesday night President Barack Obama said, "we are seeing too many instances where people do not have confidence that folks are being treated fairly."  He continued, "This is an American problem when anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law."  Earlier this week the president announced the White House would ask for $75 million to make 50,000 body cameras available to police departments across the country.

Also Wednesday evening, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a federal civil rights investigation into the death of Eric Garner.  He said that the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the FBI, which had been monitoring the case closely, would conduct "a complete review of material gathered during the local investigation."

But it will take much more than a federal investigation to stop the tragic trend of young blacks dying at the hands of police.  Local prosecutors work closely with police on cases and may not be independent enough to present evidence in a fair manner.  The prosecutors in the Ferguson case at first presented their grand jury with the wrong law, which may have affected the outcome of that proceeding.

Most police officers bravely carry out their duties, often facing unpredictable and dangerous challenges.  There needs to be a federal review of police arrest procedures in the field that will result in necessary reforms to stop wrongful deaths.  Black lives do matter.

Monday, November 24, 2014

St. Thomas More Catholic Church to Close

Gasps were heard and tears were seen when Pastor Kevin Madigan informed parishioners this past Sunday at each Mass that their church was likely to close next August.  It was a stunning blow for the vibrant church community that had received numerous assurances that St. Thomas More Catholic Church was safe.

St. Thomas More serves a highly affluent family community on Manhattan's Upper East Side with regular Masses, as well as with many informative and noteworthy events.  The church is free of debt and its operations are financially sound. Housed within the church structure, which was built in the early 1870's, is the prestigious St. Thomas More Playgroup, a nonsectarian nursery school that serves as a feeder for the many private schools located nearby. 

The plan announced on Sunday would merge St. Thomas More with St. Ignatius Loyola, located seven blocks away.  Masses would no longer be said at St. Thomas More beginning next August, and parishioners would be invited to join the Loyola Parish.

The Archdiocese of New York has faced a myriad of challenges in recent years.  There have been shifts in the Catholic population, as many families have moved out of Manhattan.  It has been difficult to staff churches and meet other demands because there are fewer priests.  Regular church attendance is down in most parishes, in part because of concerns rising out of the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church over the past decade.

The Archdiocese is hoping that Pope Francis come to New York when he visits the United States next September for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.  The Vatican has yet not announced what additional U.S. cities the Pontiff will visit. 

Meanwhile, there is a $100 million shortfall in donations for the restoration of New York's St. Patrick Cathedral, which is scheduled for completion next December.  The Archdiocese has raised $75 million of the $175 million that was first budgeted for the project according to its website.  Many suspect that the intention of the Archdiocese is to sell St. Thomas More, which would be worth millions of dollars, in order to bolster its finances.

St Thomas More has been an important part of the community since it was first constructed as an Episcopal Church beginning in 1870 to "serve the spiritual needs of St. Luke's Home for Indigent Christian Women."  That home has been replaced by a 40-story apartment building.  In 1925, the church merged with the nearby Church of Heavenly Rest Episcopal Church.  Four years later the church was rededicated as the Reformed Church of Harlem.

In 1950, the Archdiocese of New York, then under Francis Cardinal Spellman, sought to acquire the church to meet the needs of the local Catholic community. Since July 9, 1950, St. Thomas More has been serving the local community, including many prominent New Yorkers, such as the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

The memorial for her son was held at the church.  "In the simple stone church where his mother brought him to worship as a small boy, John F. Kennedy Jr., the country's most famous namesake, was remembered as a young man who shouldered the ponderous weight of legend and was still 'becoming the person he would be' in a memorial Mass yesterday that united generations and ideologies," The New York Times wrote in July 1999.

A few months before Kennedy's memorial, The New York Times had an article about the church, describing it as a "Gothic-style building (that) has the air of a picturesque English country church."  Andrew S. Dolkart, the director of Columbia University’s Historic Preservation, said in the article, "It has almost every little quirky detail of the London church...The chamfered corners, the varying planes of the facade, the asymmetrical pinnacle at the top of the tower. It really captures your attention.''

The Archdiocese of New York has now gotten the attention of the parishioners of St. Thomas More.  Meetings have been scheduled, a petition and a letter campaign are being organized, and a Facebook page for "Save St. Thomas More - Manhattan" has been set up. None of this is likely to impact Cardinal Timothy Dolan's decision.  Ironically, Dolan visited the parish a few months ago and answered questions before a packed church. There was not a hint of closure.  In fact, the visit was reassuring for many parishioners.

When the church was first dedicated 144 years ago, a large stone eagle, the symbol of St. John the Evangelist, was located over the main portal with the inscription, "We love him because he first loved us."   Now the question for this beloved church and its devoted parishioners is will love be enough to save their church from the wrecking ball.

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 Guti√©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.