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 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.
 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

NFL Fumbles

The NFL is one of the most powerful cultural institutions in America.  It dominates television ratings, it drives marketing decisions, fantasy football, and it provides endless content year-round for bloggers, columnists and commentators.  The average NFL team is worth $1.43 billion, and its top players earn more than $20 million a year.  Many communities invest in state of the art stadiums to host their home team.  And many NFL players are active role models in their respective communities.   

The NFL is a huge business, but with its success comes great responsibility.  Yet the owners and commissioner of the NFL have been more committed to protecting their business than in getting out ahead on several key social issues that have faced the league.  Where is the leadership?

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted as much when speaking specifically about the league's handling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse case.  "Unfortunately over the past several weeks, we've seen all too much of the NFL doing wrong. That starts with me," he said.  "I got it wrong in the handling of the Ray Rice matter. And I'm sorry for that. I got it wrong on a number of levels: from the process that I led to the decision that I reached. But now I will get it right and do whatever is necessary to accomplish that."

Roger Goodell began his career in the NFL in 1982, and he has been commissioner since 2006, a role for which he was paid a staggering $44 million last year.  He has said his job is to "protect the shield," a reference to the NFL logo.  But where would the NFL be without its players?  That is where the league's focus should have been from the moment it became aware of the impact of head injuries, the illegal use of drugs, and the many incidents of domestic violence.   Instead, the NFL has had a reactionary policy to each of these growing crises designed primarily to ameliorate a public relations problem.

Today there are about 1,700 players on the 32 NFL teams, most in their mid-twenties.  These are young men, many of whom came from broken homes and impoverished circumstances.  Many of the youngest players are not mature and are prone to make mistakes in judgment.  Their sudden wealth, the average NFL salary is about $2 million, and fame can often be a difficult adjustment for a young player just out of college.  Yes, they are well-paid employees in a successful business, but many need mentoring.  The NFL can play a more active role in the human development of its players, which may help prevent mistakes in judgment.  

At his news conference Friday, Goodell was asked if he considered resigning.  "I have not.  I am focused on doing my job, and doing it to the best of my abilities."  It is hard to believe that resignation had not crossed his mind, just as it is hard to believe the NFL will truly be transparent and open in its "independent" investigation of the Rice incident.  In the end the truth will come out, and Roger Goodell will have to step down.  

But that will not exonerate all of the NFL owners.   The owners need to create management structures throughout the league that are more diverse, starting with the NFL headquarters on Park Avenue.  More women and minorities need to be given important management roles so that the front offices are more in touch with the players.  

The NFL and its owners need to take the offensive when it comes to the best interest of its players.   It is time to stop fumbling the ball.

Friday, September 5, 2014

ISIS Coalition

President Barack Obama is carefully putting together a coalition of partners to join the U.S. in degrading and ultimately destroying the radical terrorist group ISIS.  His approach has come under attack from critics who want America to immediately strike ISIS in Syria, which is exactly what ISIS wants the U.S. to do. 

In a major development, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has approved his country's cooperation with the U.S. as part of the fight against ISIS, according to the BBC.  Iran's population is largely Shia Muslim, which the Sunni ISIS group views as heretics.

Up until now the Iranian leader has opposed allowing his military to cooperate with the U.S., which has been leading the effort to force Iran to scale back its nuclear ambitions.  But last month American air strikes helped Iranian-backed Shia militia, as well as Kurdish forces, defeat ISIS fighters at Amerli, in northern Iraq.  Now Khamenei has authorized a top Iranian military commander in region to coordinate with forces fighting ISIS, including the U.S.

The Obama White House has been working to build a broad coalition for weeks to deal with ISIS.  Pressure has intensified on the president as Congressional lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have called for U.S. air attacks on ISIS in Syria, where much of the organization is based.  The president has been reluctant to attack ISIS in Syria because it would end up helping Syria's ruthless dictator Bashar al-Assad, who ISIS is also seeking to topple. This is just another example how complicated the situation in the region is.

President Obama has come under harsh criticism for not having a strategy to deal with ISIS in Syria.  Many of these critics supported President George W. Bush's global strategy, the Bush Doctrine, which led to the misguided war in Iraq a decade ago, following al Qaeda's attack on the United States, that then unleashed a chain reaction of events that has now led to today's crisis in the region.

Under the Bush Doctrine the U.S. would topple dictators, like Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and replace them with a democratically elected government.  Instead, nearly 5,000 American soldiers and several hundred thousand civilians have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

Meanwhile, a deeply divided Iraq has been unable to form a successful democratic government.  Iraq fell into chaos as the heavily Shia government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to be inclusive, and wanted U.S. combat troops out of the country.  Of course, now Iraq wants the Americans back to help fight ISIS.

On Friday the U.S. announced it had formed a coalition of countries to take on ISIS.  The announcement was made at the NATO meeting in Wales, and the strategy could serve as a template for dealing with terrorist organizations in the future.  So far, the U.S., Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Turkey were among the NATO countries that joined to coalition.

Officials made it clear that ground forces in Syria would come from the moderate Assad opposition, and in Iraq the Kurds and the regular army would fight, with the assistance of U.S. airstrikes.   “Obviously I think that’s a red line for everybody here: no boots on the ground,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday.  Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are among the Arab countries that have indicated they will participate.  The plan, which is still being worked on, will take some time to play out.

Meanwhile, U.S. airstrikes have been effective in slowing the ISIS, but the groups' brutal tactics continue.  ISIS has beheaded two American journalists and threatens more beheadings unless the U.S. stops its bombings.  Some experts believe that ISIS wants nothing more than to draw the U.S. into a full-scale war.  ISIS could then claim equal footing with the world's only super power, and could use such a war to increase recruits and funding from anti-American groups. 

But, unlike the neocons that ran Bush's failed foreign policy, President Obama is not going to be rushed into another ground war.  He believes he needs a strong coalition, including Arab countries, and a more inclusive Iraqi government, to ensure a broader and more enduring solution.  For sure, sending in U.S. ground troops would lead to a quick short-term victory, but ISIS would return the minute U.S. troops withdrew from the region. 

President Obama's actions reflect the sentiment in a war-weary America that does not favor committing more U.S. troops.  Still, because of all the criticism aimed at the president, his approval ratings on foreign policy are low.  Maybe he should have armed moderate Syrians a year ago.  Maybe he shouldn't have said he doesn't have a strategy for defeating ISIS in Syrian when he was working on one.  

But it is better to be thoughtful and measured rather than impulsive and emotional.  There are no easy solutions to this crisis, but all stakeholders must work together if there is to be a lasting peace.  And the president is building that coalition.
 
Another way of saying, "don't do stupid stuff" is, "be smart." 

Monday, September 1, 2014

The 2014 Midterm Elections

With less than 10 weeks to go before the midterm Congressional elections Americans in general are frustrated with Washington.  National polls show that about three quarters of all Americans disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job.  By comparison, about half of those Americans polled disapprove of President Barack Obama's handling of his job. 

Sunday's New York Post reported that 163 laws have been passed and signed by the president since this two-year term of Congress began in January 2013.  That is far lower than the 284 laws that were passed by the 2011-2013 session, which is an all time record for fewest bills passed.  Congress passed 386 laws during the 2009-2011 session.   Former Representative Lee Hamilton (R-IN) told the Post, "I've never seen it any worse in terms of public esteem for the Congress.  I can't find anybody who says a good word about it."

Despite Congress's lack of productivity, and as outrageous as it may seem, it appears that most incumbents will be reelected in November.   Conventional wisdom is that while most Americans want to get rid of Congress, they nonetheless support their own representative.  This is especially true during midterm elections because voter turnout is often very low, which gives incumbents an advantage.  But both parties are leaving nothing to chance, as a record amount of campaign dollars will be poured into this election, surpassing the $3.6 billion spent in 2010.   

Republicans currently hold a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives, 233-199; there are three vacant seats.  The GOP expects to expand its majority in the House.  Meanwhile, Democrats currently hold a majority in the Senate.  But of the 36 Senate seats in play, 21 of them held by Democrats, while 15 are held by Republicans.  If the GOP picks up six Senate seats this midterm they will be in the majority in both houses of Congress.  Most experts, including Nate Silver, of the election site FiveThirtyEight, give Republicans a slight edge to take those seats and become the majority party in the Senate.  

The Republicans are targeting the seven Democratic seats that are up in states where Mitt Romney beat President Obama in the 2012 presidential election.  They are also going after four additional Democratic seats in states where the president remains unpopular.  Republicans will do all they can to make this election about President Obama's unpopularity. 

Domestically the president has been attacked for executive actions he has taken to bypass the blockade that Congress has become.  For example, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who himself has presidential aspirations, has regularly attacked the president, telling Fox News "He believes somehow that he's become a monarch or an emperor that can basically ignore the law and do whatever he wants."  On the other hand, Republicans have attacked President Obama for being disengaged and "leading from behind" on foreign policy.  The president's recent comment the he does not have a strategy on dealing with ISIS in Syria was seized upon by Republicans.  Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), said on CBS Sunday,  "What I want to hear from the president is that he has a strategy to finish ISIS off, to defeat ISIS."

Congressional and Senate Democratic candidates have tried to localize their elections, but Republicans are focusing on President Obama in an effort to energize their base.  So Democrats are trying to mobilize minority voters,  especially African-Americans, who generally don't vote in midterms.  Party activists are using the shooting in Ferguson, Mo., and conservative calls to impeach the president, to mobilize Blacks.  An increase in the number of Southern Blacks helped Democrats during the 1998 midterm election, when President Bill Clinton was under heavy fire from the right.

Ironically, the one Republican Senator who is in the toughest fight to be reelected is the man who has the most to gain if Republicans win majority control.  Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), the Senate minority leader, has done all he can to obstruct and block the agenda of President Obama since the day he was sworn in to office in 2009.  McConnell is facing a vigorous challenge from Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.  McConnell is not popular in Kentucky, but a recent state poll shows he has the edge.  Lundergan Grimes is making McConnell's failings in Congress the issue.  But McConnell is tying his opponent to President Obama.  

Should Republicans take control of both houses the legislative process will grind to a halt.  Anything the Republicans pass, like efforts to defund Obamacare, will be vetoed by the president.  Meanwhile, congressional investigations into the so-called scandals surrounding the IRS and Benghazi will intensify.  The partisan divide will widen as Republicans try to score points before the 2016 Presidential Elections.   

Because so much is at stake, this coming election day is not a time for eligible voters to stay home.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Immigration Crisis

President Barack Obama should take executive action on immigration in an effort to ease the current humanitarian crisis along the border, even though some House Republicans have threatened to attempt to impeach him for exceeding his authority.   With the midterm elections just three months away, a Republican impeachment effort would energize Democrats to increase their turnout in key races throughout the country.

There are an estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.  But over that past two years there has been an explosion of undocumented children caught crossing the border without parents or guardians.  The bulk of the children come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where crime, gangs and violence are rampant.  U.S. authorities have struggled with how to handle the surge.  Those coming from Mexico are immediately returned.  Those coming from Central America must be referred to the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement by law and placed in temporary shelters to await their deportation proceedings.  But the surge has overwhelmed the system.  According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 57,525 unaccompanied alien children were apprehended along the Southwest Border region in fiscal 2014. 

The president recently asked Congress to authorize $3.7 billion to deal with the crisis.  Instead the House approved two bills that would provide the administration with $694 million but end a program that protects some young immigrants from deportation for two years.  The president said Republican lawmakers are "not even trying to solve the problem."  Meanwhile, the Senate did not act, and Congress adjourned for its five week summer break.  

At a news conference Wednesday, the president was asked about Republican accusations that he is an "imperial president."  Obama responded, saying, "I promise you the American people don’t want me just standing around twiddling my thumbs and waiting for Congress to get something done. Even as we take these executive actions, I’m going to continue to reach out to Democrats and Republicans."  As to immigration, the president said, "So if I’m going to, for example, send more immigration judges down to the border to process some of these unaccompanied children that have arrived at the border, then that’s coming from someplace else, and we’re going to have to prioritize. That’s well within our authorities and prosecutorial discretion."

Under prosecutorial discretion the government could prioritize what cases it wants to pursue.  For instance, the president could authorize prosecutors to focus only on individuals with ties to organized crime or who are convicted of serious criminal offenses.  The president could also expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) for children who were brought into the country illegally.  Under the program, individuals apply for a renewable, two-year work permit and temporary reprieve from deportation proceedings.  This would be controversial and give Republicans a chance to charge that illegals are taking jobs away from citizens, even though that would not be true.

In June 2013, the Senate passed an immigration reform bill by a bipartisan vote of 68 to 32.  But the House has refused to take the measure up because of Republican opposition in its chamber.  Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio said last month that the bill would not have stopped the surge of illegal children.  “What I think would have prevented that from happening is sufficient border security on the ground that would have discouraged people from making that journey in the first place,” he told the Washington Times.
Nonetheless, the president is urging passage of the Senate bill.  "My preference would be an actual comprehensive immigration law. And we already have a bipartisan law that would solve a whole bunch of these problems," he said at his news conference.  "Until that happens, I’m going to have to make a choice. That’s what I was elected to do."

Now, while the do-nothing Congress is on its long summer break, the humanitarian crisis along the border worsens.   For sure, some Republicans will go back to their districts and rail at the president for inaction on immigration.  At the same time, House Speaker, and hypocrite, John Boehner is suing the president for exceeding his authority by delaying the employer mandate in the healthcare law that Boehner so vehemently opposes.  Should the president take executive action on immigration, Boehner may decide to raise the ante.

In the near future, Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will present the president with options for changing deportation policies.  The president should move quickly on their recommendations and do what he was elected to do.