Friday, December 31, 2010

Toast to America 2011

The year 2010 went like a flash. I began the year with high hopes for the beginnings of a robust economic recovery and a tangible decrease in the nation's unemployment. But I also began the year thinking the Chicago Cubs would go to the World Series for the first time in more than 100 years!

The weak economic recovery was the most significant story this year. Unemployment hovers around 10%, and millions more Americans are so discouraged they have stopped looking for a job. While there are some positive signs, foreclosures, personal bankruptcies and poverty are growing. There is so much debt in the American economy that a full recovery will be a slow and painful process. Further, the U.S. government is funding its booming deficits with bonds purchased by China and other countries. The national debt is now at about $45,000 per citizen, and it is growing at about $4 billion daily.

The most important political story this past year was the rise of the Tea Party movement. The movement grew out of citizen discontent with America's government exacerbated by a struggling economy. Although primarily a conservative, "smaller government-less taxes" movement, Tea Party attacks were directed at both sides of the aisle. As a result, the Republican Party has been pulled to the right, and President Barack Obama has been pulled more to the middle.

The repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was the most significant story from the perspective of a social issue, perhaps in decades. No longer will heroic Gay and Lesbian Americans have to hide their sexual orientation while risking their lives for the country they love.

The most important environmental story this past year was the BP oil spill in Gulf of Mexico. At first, the nation seemed paralyzed with uncertainty about the outcome of this unprecedented environmental disaster. The country came face to face with the consequences of not reducing its dependency on fossil fuels, and Gulf Coast residents suffered severe financial consequences. Yet, in the end, BP CEO Tony Hayward got his life back (and more), while Americans seem to have moved on with their lives. The importance of this story may be that it will take a more significant disaster in order for America to change its ways.

On the international front, America's engagement in two controversial wars is the top story. While U.S. combat troops have now departed Iraq, thousands of soldiers have remained behind as that country struggles with its uncertain future. Neo-conservative dreams of creating in Iraq a "Democratic Arab State" appear unachievable.

Meanwhile, Americans are growing increasingly weary of the war in Afghanistan. The late Richard Holbrooke, perhaps one of America's most brilliant diplomats, who served as America's special envoy to this region, reportedly made the following deathbed plea: "You have got to stop this war in Afghanistan." He knew that a weak and corrupt Kabul government would never be able to rule the whole country. Nearly 500 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan this past year, as well as hundreds of hundreds of coalition soldiers and thousands of civilians. To date, the U.S government has spent a total of about $1 trillion dollars on these two wars.

As we ring in a new year, there are many dark clouds hanging over this country. Citizens are concerned about the uncertain future. Yet, America has overcome adversity many times before in its history. It has always done so because the nation is strong and its people are resilient. That is true as well today. America is the world's leading nation, and a beacon of hope for the entire globe. So, let us drink a New Year's toast to America.

As for the Cubs in 2011, "Wait till next year!"

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Persistent President

For a man who said he suffered a "shellacking" at the polls and an elbow to the lower lip in a basketball game, President Barack was standing tall today. The "lame duck" session of the 111th Congress will go down as one of the most productive sessions in history, but this just may be the calm before the storm.

The president's legislative accomplishments this past month are truly remarkable. Many initiatives thought to be beyond reach passed in a legislative flurry. The START Treaty, repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell", which the president signed today in an emotional ceremony at the White House, a continuing resolution to extend government financing to March 4, and the extension of unemployment benefits, were among the measures pushed through Congress at the end of their term. Many members of Congress deserve credit but the brightest light shines on President Obama.

President Obama has accomplished an amazing amount during his first two years in office. The "Recovery Act" saved more than 3 million jobs from being lost. The auto industry bailout has helped the U.S. auto industry regain its footing. Banking reform will make it harder for financial institutions to lead this country to the precipice of economic failure. Historic health care reform will expand coverage to millions of Americans, preventing those with a pre-existing condition or those who lose their jobs from being dropped by insurance companies. It will also help control health care costs and allow parents to keep children up to 25 years of age on their policy. Also among his achievements, the appointment of Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

In a few short weeks the president has positioned himself as more bipartisan than the Republicans. A new CNN poll shows voters approve by a margin of 56 to 42 percent the president's handling of this Congressional session. Only 42 per cent approved the Republicans' handling of the session. The poll also overwhelmingly found that the president did enough to compromise with Republicans, a 59 to 37 per cent margin.

But Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has vowed as his top priority to make President Barack Obama a one-term president. And, when Congress starts its new session, Rep. John Boehner will take the Speaker's gavel and the leadership of the new Republican majority in the House. Together they will do all they can to repeal health care reform and many other progressive initiatives. First they will have to reconcile their agenda with that of their Tea Party wing.

The president is correct to state that the newly empowered Republicans will have to take some responsibility for governing. No more "no". But with unemployment hovering around 10 per cent, a burgeoning deficit and the certainty of numerous Congressional investigations by the House Oversight Committee, led by GOP Congressman Darrell Issa, the next Congressional session promises to be rocky for the White House.

Nonetheless, President Barack Obama is in a good place right now, better than anyone would have imagined just six weeks ago. He has succeeded by leading. He has succeeded, in his own words, by being "persistent" about the things he cares about. If he stays the course, he will likely prevail in the 2012 presidential election.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Obama Compromise

Progressive Democrats are throwing down the gauntlet, angered that President Barack Obama has approved a two year extension of the Bush tax cuts to America's wealthiest 2% income earners. But his acquiescence, in exchange for extended unemployment benefits and other goodies, averts a painful political battle just in time for the holiday season.

There is a lot not to like in the Obama compromise. First and foremost, tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans will add $70 billion to the burgeoning national deficit each year. In effect, America is borrowing $70 billion dollars each year from the Chinese government and handing it to this country's richest citizens.

Most economists point out that, when it comes to creating new jobs, this is the least effective way of lowering unemployment. Nonetheless, conservative Democrats feared that allowing the Bush tax cuts to lapse for incomes above $250 thousand, or even $1 million, would enable Republicans to claim to voters that Democrats raise taxes.

Of course, neither party can be accused of fiscal responsibility. If hypocrisy is not the highest form of American politics, it may be close. The full impact of extending the unfunded Bush tax cuts an additional four years is another $4 trillion dollars added to the deficit.

Since their enactment nearly a decade ago, these unfunded tax cuts have already caused the deficit to balloon while creating very few jobs in return. Therefore, that Republicans would insist on offsetting the costs of extending unemployment benefits for 2.5 million needy Americans is almost inhumane. Especially since this money will immediately be plowed back into the ailing economy by its recipients.

Democrats were so fearful of the potential political fallout of dealing with this tax issue prior to the Midterm elections that they deferred it until the lame duck session. Nonetheless, Democrats suffered a "shellacking" on Election Day and found their negotiating position on a myriad of issues weakened. President Obama campaigned in 2008 on ending the Bush Tax Cuts for the richest Americans. But failing to compromise on the tax extension would have had devastating consequences on the millions of Americans in need of unemployment benefits.

Since taking office, President Obama has enacted historic health care reform, meaningful financial reform, consumer protection and his stimulus package kept many state governments afloat, gave tax breaks to Americans and helped avoid an economic depression. This is a record for which Democrats should be proud.

This latest compromise may not be ideal for Democrats. But it gives most struggling Americans some economic certainty for another year. And it includes a payroll tax deduction, which should help spur the anemic economy. It may also clear way for Congress to deal with ratification of the START Treaty, the "Dream Act" and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" this lame duck session.

Democrats will be better served to accept the compromise and come together. Their message to voters can be "we stand for 98% of all Americans." The Republicans have once again shown that they are fiercely loyal to the wealthiest Americans and big business.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Christmas Lights

Today is the first Sunday in December and a time when thousands of carolers gather at New York's Brick Church. The music warmed the hearts of the young and old who gathered in the 30 degree weather.

The annual Park Avenue tree lighting ceremony is in its 66th year. It is a time to remember, to the stirring sound of taps, those brave Americans who have fallen in this nation's wars. And shortly after a prayer Christmas lights on trees filling the center island of in the Park Avenue for 50 blocks are illuminated. Toddlers perched on their parents shoulders, extended families and dozens of onlookers from apartment building windows all join in the singing and gaiety.

But as enjoyable as the tree lighting was, I found myself still laughing at the story Father Thomas Shelley told at mass earlier in the day. "An Irishman went into a bar and ordered three beers, at the same time. The bartender set them up and the man then moved from chair to chair taking a sip out of each glass. This had happened for several days when the bartender had to ask, 'I noticed you order three beers at one time, why?' The man answered, 'You see I recently moved here from Ireland and I have no friends. And I miss my two brothers, one who went to Canada and the other Australia. So I do this to be with them, if you know what I mean.' The bartender said he understood. But then a couple weeks later the man showed up and only ordered two beers. As the bartender set them up he said to the man, 'Oh, I am sorry for your loss.' But the man said, 'Oh no, I didn't lose anyone. No, I just gave beer up for Lent.'"

Of course, in the Catholic Church's calendar this is Advent, the time leading up to the birth of Jesus. Nonetheless, I'm sure Father Shelley wouldn't mind if you use this story come Lent.