Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Baltimore-A City of Neighborhoods

The rioting in Baltimore is heartbreaking.  This great and proud city has struggled for decades to overcome lost manufacturing jobs, decaying blocks and long neglected neighborhoods.  All of the ingredients were in place for an explosion.  

The unjustified death of Freddie Gray while in police custody was the catalyst that set off rioting and destruction.   Many residents in Freddie Gray's neighborhood say that police harassment is constant.  Just in the past four years 100 people have won court judgments or settlements against the Baltimore police related to allegations of brutality or civil rights violations.  

Half of the residents between 16 and 64 are unemployed, while the greater Baltimore area unemployment rate is much lower.  More than 30% of the homes in Freddie Gray's neighborhood are vacant or abandoned, while the average for the city is about 8%.   The median household income in the neighborhood is about $24,000, compared to about $42,000 for the city.  Almost 35% of its residents do not have a high school diploma.  

There is no excuse for the senseless violence that has broken out in Baltimore.  But there are underlying causes that have been left for fester and now explode.  The people, officials and business leaders of Baltimore know it.  

For instance, Baltimore Orioles COO John Angelos vented his feelings Saturday in a series of Twitter replies to a local sportscaster.  Angelos began by tweeting, "the principle of peaceful, non-violent protest and the observance of the rule of law is of utmost importance in any society."  He added, "Further, it is critical that in any democracy, investigation must be completed and due process must be honored before any government or police members are judged responsible."

But then he offered a defense.  When edited together, his tweets read: "my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state."

Forty miles away, at the White House on Tuesday, President Barack Obama said there was no excuse for the violence in Baltimore, but he blamed it on economic inequality and police brutality.  "This is not new. This has been going on for decades. And without making any excuses for criminal activities that take place in these communities, we also know if you have impoverished communities that have been stripped away of opportunity, where children are born into abject poverty, they've got parents, often because of substance abuse problems or incarceration or lack of education, and themselves can't do right by their kids, if it's more likely that those kids end up in jail or dead than that they go to college, and communities where there are no fathers who can provide guidance to young men, communities where there’s no investment, and manufacturing's been stripped away, and drugs have flooded the community and the drug industry ends up being the primary employer for a lot of folks, in those environments," the president said with great passion.  

He concluded forcefully, "if we think that we're just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there without, as a nation, and as a society saying what can we do to change those communities to help lift up those communities and give those kids opportunity, then we're not going to solve this problem, and we'll go through this same cycles of periodic conflicts between the police and communities, and the occasional riots in the streets and everybody will feign concern until it goes away and we just go about our business as usual."

Baltimore was once the home of the great abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass.  Douglass famously said, "I would unite with anybody to do right and nobody to do wrong."  Will this episode in Baltimore's storied history be a time when a nation unites to do right?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Hillary Clinton: Getting Started

“I’m running for president,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in a video released Sunday afternoon.  “Everyday Americans need a champion. And I want to be that champion,” Mrs. Clinton said. “So I’m hitting the road to earn your vote — because it’s your time. And I hope you’ll join me on this journey.”  

Clinton's highly anticipated announcement video, called "Getting Started," at first features appearances from a diverse cross section of working class Americans.  It is positive, hopeful and family-oriented.   Clinton, who first appears 90 seconds into the two-minute and eighteen second video, is warm, confident and upbeat.  But her message is clearly targeted, "Americans have fought their way back from tough economic times, but the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top. " 

Clinton offered no specific plans on how she will champion everyday Americans.  But Clinton is expected to focus her campaign on stagnant wages and income inequality.  The U.S. economy has improved greatly since the recession of 2008, but many Americans have not benefited from the progress.  And, while likely and declared Republican candidates have forwarded the argument for income equality, their proposed solutions are viewed with suspicion.   However, Clinton will have to more clearly articulate her plans for growing the economy in order to connect with lower and middle class voters. 

While Clinton is not likely to face serious opposition for her own party's  nomination, she, nonetheless, faces a serious challenge in differentiating herself from her predecessor.  Democrats have failed four of the last five times to win three consecutive terms as president.   And more Americans disapprove President Barack Obama's performance than approve it according to most recent polls.  President Obama does poorest among those polled on foreign policy.  Clinton will have to navigate the tricky shoals of separating herself from President Obama while not alienating his many supporters, especially African Americans.   And she has to hope that President Obama does not have a serious enough foreign policy setback to drag her candidacy down.

Even though her service as Secretary of State would seem to be a strength, Republican candidates will do all they can to diminish this advantage.  They will pair her with the president on policy problems in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Iran and Ukraine.  They will describe her stint at the State Department as a failure.  They will say she achieved nothing while in office except frequent flyer miles.  Clinton will need a stronger answer to these charges than she had for ABC's Diane Sawyer last year when she did not cite a single accomplishment during her term at State. 

Perhaps no other presidential candidate is as well known to voters as is Hillary Clinton.  She is viewed favorably by almost half those recently polled.  But her unfavorable numbers are also very high.  Hillary Clinton is a polarizing figure in American politics.  Maybe that is why she frequently references her identity as a woman, and better yet, a grandmother.  Nonetheless, she will need to make it clear she can accomplish her goals despite a recalcitrant Congress.   Americans are tired and frustrated with the Congressional gridlock that has characterized the previous six years on Capitol Hill.  

But Congressional Republicans have been attacking Clinton for years, and, with her announcement, those attacks will be more amplified.   From Whitewater to Benghazi, Clinton continues to be a lightening rod for a litany of charges that galvanize GOP party members and donors against her.  Just last week Republican Senator Rand Paul, who announced his candidacy for president, dropped hints in a campaign appearance of a scandal with the Clinton Foundation.  While none of these scandals have to date panned out, Republicans will continue their barrage of attacks.  But the more they attack her for these so-called scandals, the more they risk angering and energizing Democrat and independent voters to support her. 

Clinton's challenge will not be fighting off Republican attacks.  Rather, it will be to connect with America's working class by clearly laying out what she will do as president to make their lives better.   Yes, if elected, she would be the first woman president.  Yes, she has no challengers for her party's nomination.  But if she campaigns as a front-runner, or as someone who is entitled to the presidency, she will falter.

Her unconventional announcement video indicates that this time will be different.  But, with about eighteen months to go before the 2016 elections, a loaded field of Republican candidates attacking her, and record amounts of campaign money being spent, this campaign will no doubt be most unconventional.

And they are only getting started!