Friday, November 18, 2011

Congress kills funding for Obama's high-speed rail

The House and Senate voted today to eliminate most of the $8 billion that President Obama sought next year for his vision of nationwide high-speed rail.

Republicans trumpeted what they said was the death of the president's six-year, $53 billion plan, saying the future of fast trains lies along the Northeast Corridor, The Hill writes. The funding was eliminated in a deal with Democrats on a spending bill for the Transportation Department and other agencies. The measure cleared the House by 298-121 and the Senate by 70-30 on its way to Obama's desk.

"Today's vote marks the end to President Obama's misguided high-speed rail program, but it also represents a new beginning for true intercity high-speed passenger rail service in America," Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, said in a statement.

The Associated Press points out, however, that "billions of dollars still in the pipeline will ensure work will continue on some projects. And it's still possible money from another transportation grant program can be steered to high-speed trains."

California was hoping for several billion dollars to keep its plans on track for what could be the nation's first genuine bullet-train network, with trains reaching 220 mph. Construction on the first phase, between Fresno and Bakersfield, is expected to start next year and be finished in three to five years, the San Francisco Chronicle notes. The price tag is $6 billion: $3.3 billion from Washington and $2.7 billion in state bonds.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Obama Campaign Borrows From Bush ‘04 Playbook

The last time an incumbent president faced re-election, George W. Bush exploited social and national security issues to offset his economic vulnerabilities.

Over the next year, President Obama will try the same thing.

Circumstances have changed drastically since 2004. America’s economic woes stand to dominate the 2012 dialogue no matter what — probably to Mr. Obama’s detriment.

Yet in important electoral battlegrounds, Mr. Obama’s strategists intend to use abortion, gay rights, the environment and successes in the fight against Al Qaeda to counter economic attacks and drive a wedge between Republicans and swing voters.

The Democratic shift from defense to offense on those issues stems from evolving public attitudes, intensifying Republican conservatism and the raid that killed
Osama bin Laden on Mr. Obama’s orders. The perilous state of the American economy undercuts the president’s assertions that he prevented something worse.

The result: over the weekend, Mr. Obama accused his Republican challengers of displaying a “kind of smallness” by not denouncing a debate audience that booed a gay soldier. He used the incident to question their readiness to become commander in chief.

Days earlier at a California fund-raiser, Mr. Obama cast his re-election bid as an appeal to “people of like mind, people who believe in a big and generous and a tolerant and ambitious and fact-based America.”

Those “people of like mind” include the affluent, college-educated residents of suburbs around Denver, Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham, Orlando, Boston and Washington — the epicenters of Mr. Obama’s fight for Colorado, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, New Hampshire and Virginia.

The ‘Monied’ Suburbs

In his 2008 victory, Mr. Obama broke through among several important voter groups. Exit polls showed that he carried suburbanites, college graduates and those earning more than $200,000.

Mr. Obama won handily in areas that the research organization Patchwork Nation calls “Monied ’Burbs.” Residents of these high-income suburbs, which add up to roughly a quarter of the United States population, tend to be less religious and more tolerant of homosexuality and abortion rights, said Dante Chinni, Patchwork Nation’s director.

They narrowly backed Republicans in the 2010 House elections. Their disappointment over the economy cloud Mr. Obama’s 2012 re-election prospects.

But their distance from the Republican right on social issues gives Mr. Obama a tool for fighting back.

“The question is whether it’s possible to pop those issues when the economy is this bad,” said Jim Jordan, a campaign manager for Senator John Kerry’s bid for the White House in 2004. “The answer is maybe.”

Recent evidence is mixed.

In Colorado, the incumbent Democratic senator, Michael Bennet, survived the 2010 Republican wave after he “shifted a chunk of the conversation off the economic and onto social issues,” said Laura Chapin, a Democratic strategist in Denver. Mr. Obama’s strategists view that victory as an object lesson.

It didn’t work in the 2009 race for governor of Virginia. Democrats tried to cast the Republican nominee, Bob McDonnell, as an extremist on social issues; Mr. McDonnell, now governor, focused relentlessly on the economy.

Truce Proposed

That’s why Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, a Republican, has called for “a truce” on social issues. With Mr. Obama faring so poorly on the economy, the topics that rallied the conservative base for Mr. Bush now carry more costs than benefits.

Nor can Republicans capitalize on national security as they did in 2004. No leading Republican candidate has foreign policy experience. Mr. Obama’s successes in targeting Al Qaeda, from the Bin Laden raid to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki on Friday, give him potent tools for defusing a traditional Democratic vulnerability.

Mr. Obama’s success in using social issues to attract affluent suburbanites will depend significantly on the outcome of Republican primaries. Former Gov.
Mitt Romney of Massachusetts now opposes abortion rights and backs a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

But Mr. Romney, a former finance executive, has focused overwhelmingly on the economy. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who is reconsidering whether to join the race, has defined himself politically through his drive to cut government spending.

The emphatic social conservatism of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who opened his campaign soon after addressing a “Call to Prayer” Christian gathering in Houston, would provide a bigger target. “You can’t have a big religious rally and not scare the hell out of suburban Philadelphia,” said Kim Alfano, a Republican consultant who advises Mr. Daniels.

Mr. Perry’s insistence that man-made climate change remains unproved, mocked by Mr. Obama at that California fund-raiser, provides another opening among college-educated swing voters. Jill Hanauer, who directs the Democratic consultancy Project New West, said the issue could weaken Republicans’ economic message by making the party appear to be “looking backwards” in an era of global competition.

Republicans have their own strong economic arguments for upscale suburbanites, including Mr. Obama’s proposals to raise taxes on households earning more than $250,000. Those will echo Democrats’ 2004 warnings to working-class voters — that social issues obscured how Mr. Bush had hurt their pocketbooks.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Obama talks '12, debt and Cordray

Sitting for another round of interviews with local television news stations Wednesday, President Barack Obama said the debt and deficit talks have "been taking up all the oxygen in the room," preventing the federal government from tackling job creation.

"What we have to do is we have to continue with some of the tax breaks that we provided in December: The payroll tax cut that has put $1000 in the pockets of the average family," Obama told Lara Moritz, news anchor for ABC's Kansas City station. "That creates more demand and more business for folks, because that money gets spent and that means small businesses and large businesses have more customers and they hire more people to service those customers," he added.

Moritz followed up by asking the president which Republican candidate could beat him in 2012, but Obama didn't bite.

"Well I have to tell you, I am so occupied with doing the people's business that I'm just not spending a lot of time right now worrying about the Republican field," he replied. "Ultimately I will be judged based on the American people believing that I'm fighting for them."

Jerry Revish of 10TV News in Columbus, Ohio, asked how the president intends to convince Ohioans to vote to reelect him next year.

Ticking off a list of his administration's goals -- from clean energy investments to rebuilding the national infrastructure -- Obama said it will all come down to whether the "economy is growing." If it is, he said, "the politics will take care of itself."

Asked by Revish about his nomination of Richard Cordray to direct the new Consumer Financial Protection Board, the president defended the new agency from Republican critics.

"We are going to, for the first time, have a consolidated agency whose only job is to make sure that consumers aren't getting ripped off," Obama said.

The president said Ohio Republicans have complimented Cordray's public service in the past. Cordray was state attorney general from 2008 to 2010.

Back on the debt issue, Obama laid out for KABC-Los Angeles anchor David Ono what's at stake:

"The full faith and credit of the United States of America is at stake," Obama said. "We've always been an AAA-rated nation. The dollar is the reserve currency of the world. If we do not solve this problem in a serious way, you can potentially see a downgrading of U.S. credit, which would mean potential interest rate hikes for everyone, whether you are trying to get a car loan or your credit card. It also would add interest costs that would actually worsen the deficit. It doesn't make sense for us not to do it. We intend to get this done. I'm going to keep members of Congress here for as long as it takes to get it done."

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Obama pressures Republicans on federal debt ceiling

He depicts GOP leaders as supporting tax breaks for jet-setting corporate executives at others' expense, and chides lawmakers for taking frequent recesses instead of staying in Washington to finish the job.

President Obama is sharply intensifying pressure on congressional Republicans in negotiations over the federal debt, depicting GOP leaders as supporting tax breaks for jet-setting corporate executives at the expense of college scholarships or medical research.

Obama chastised Republican leaders in an hourlong televised news conference Wednesday, moving the debt talks out of the realm of closed-door Washington meetings and into full public view, and setting off a high-stakes effort to mobilize public opinion.

Obama and Republicans have been locked for more than a month in a confrontation over raising the nation's borrowing limit. Republicans have insisted they will not approve the increase unless Obama and congressional Democrats agree to reduce the debt in the long term — though the GOP spending plan would also require raising the debt ceiling. Last week, top Republicans pulled out of discussions with Vice President Joe Biden, objecting to a White House demand that any deal include additional revenue as well as spending cuts.

The news conference represented a rare instance of Obama using the presidential megaphone to defend his position. In the past, the president has been prone to delivering lengthy answers in a professorial tone, relying on abstract ideas. By contrast, Obama on Wednesday laid out his arguments in simple, everyday terms, echoing an ex-president that he has been studying: Ronald Reagan.

"These are bills that Congress ran up," Obama said, in explaining why the U.S. must not default on its debt obligations. "They took the vacation. They bought the car. Now they're saying, 'Maybe we don't have to pay.'"

Obama also chided lawmakers for taking frequent recesses instead of staying in Washington to finish work on the debt question. He added that his two young daughters exhibited more diligence in doing their homework than Congress had shown.

"They don't wait until the night before," he said. "They're not pulling all-nighters. Congress can do the same thing."

Reacting to the criticism, senators considered abandoning a weeklong July 4 recess, and House leaders said they would stay in session until negotiations were finished.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said the chances of the Senate being in session next week were "pretty good."

But Republican leaders offered scant hope of a shift on the issue of tax revenues. "The president is sorely mistaken if he believes a bill to raise the debt ceiling and raise taxes would pass the House," said House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Some of the GOP rank and file, however, indicated they would consider new revenue sources, posing a potential challenge to party unity. "I'm not too sympathetic to all these jets myself, so I'd be willing to consider that," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Budget Committee.

Others said it would depend on which loophole was being eliminated. "I'm willing to take a look at the special deals," said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). "I would love to do away with special tax breaks, but not legitimate business deductions."

Obama cited the high-profile tax break offered to owners of corporate jets several times in the news conference, even though it would bring in only an estimated $3 billion over 10 years. Other Democratic proposals would tighten oil and gas tax credits, netting $41 billion over 10 years, and eliminate credits for hedge fund managers, netting $21 billion.

The largest Democratic tax proposal would limit the deductions that may be claimed by those earning more than $500,000 a year. The White House said earlier this year that in all, it wants $760 billion in new revenue over 10 years.

With the Fourth of July weekend coming up, the Obama administration will send top officials to appear on television to echo the president's message and build a consensus behind what he calls a "balanced" approach to deficit reduction. Gene Sperling, the president's top economic advisor, will be one of those leading the push.

The government reached the limit of its borrowing ability in May, and federal officials warn that maneuvers to continue paying the nation's bills will be exhausted by Aug. 2, risking a default on federal obligations.

Underscoring the concerns, the International Monetary Fund warned in a report Wednesday that failure by Congress to raise the borrowing limit could result in "a severe shock to the economy and world financial markets."

Nonetheless, many Republicans regard the administration's warnings as a scare tactic and refuse to raise the debt ceiling without major reductions in the nation's deficit, chiefly through spending cuts. They oppose new revenue from any source, even unpopular credits and loopholes.

"The corporate plane tax hike that the president now wants would bring in about $3 billion in new taxes," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "The president wants hundreds of billions in new taxes. Where would they get the rest?''

Democrats have countered that its significance is symbolic, showing that Republicans refuse to consider even such obvious measures.

The president painted a stark image of the winners and losers under the debt deal favored by Republicans. Oil companies that are already making money "hand over fist," he said, would continue to receive taxpayer subsidies, at the expense of "a bunch of kids out there who are not getting college scholarships."

Medical research would be undermined and food inspection would be weakened if the Republicans pursued their "maximalist position," the president said.

"If you're a wealthy CEO or a hedge fund manager in America right now, your taxes are lower than they have ever been," he said. "You'll still be able to ride on your corporate jet; you're just going to have to pay a little more."

He added: "It would be nice if we could keep every tax break there is. But we've got to make some tough choices here if we want to reduce our deficit."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Michelle Obama helps build DC school playground

First Lady Michelle Obama mixed and poured concrete, attached swings to a swing set and raked mulch for an hour Wednesday at a charter school in a low-income Southeast Washington neighborhood. By the time she and hundreds of other volunteers were finished, the school had a new playground on what previously was barren land.

The first lady was the guest of honor as KaBOOM!, a nonprofit that gives children opportunities for unstructured outdoor play, constructed the 2,000th playground in its 15-year history.

"This is a very cool experience," Obama said. "It really is a source of pride to be here today to celebrate the 2,000th build."

The first lady is an advocate for exercise and healthy eating and worked with KaBOOM! before President Barack Obama was elected. It was the second time she has joined the group to build a playground.

KaBOOM! advocates for play as a critical part of children's physical, intellectual and emotional development. The group works primarily in low-income neighborhoods that lack playgrounds within walking distance, and community members are asked to raise some money for the project and participate in the construction. The playgrounds are built in a single day.

"Play is on the decline in the United States," KaBOOM! founder Darell Hammond said. "Kids are getting less and less of it, both in recess and at parks and playgrounds."

Imagine Southeast Public Charter School was chosen in part because the group wanted to celebrate its 2,000th project in Washington, where it is headquartered, said Karen Duncan, an adviser to KaBOOM! and the wife of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The group gets about 14,000 requests a year for new playgrounds, and Imagine Southeast stood out because its principal and parents were so enthusiastic about the project, Karen Duncan said.

The 4,000-square-foot playground cost $195,000 and was funded by the Knight Foundation, a charitable entity founded by the former owners of the Knight Ridder media company.

The Duncans also helped out with the construction, along with NBA veteran Antawn Jamison, a former Washington Wizard who's now with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Jamison traveled to Washington from his offseason home in Charlotte, N.C., to volunteer his time. It was the fifth time he had worked with KaBOOM!

"You see the gratification when you see the smiles on the kids' faces," Jamison said. "I'll be able to sleep good tonight, knowing that I made a difference."

Jamison said he doesn't often get starstruck but was thrilled to meet the first lady.

"I was surprised by how tall she was," the 6-foot-9 power forward said.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

GOP questions federal rules on healthier eating

House Republicans are pushing back against Obama administration efforts to promote healthier lunches, saying the Agriculture Department should rewrite rules it issued in January meant to make school meals healthier. They say the new rules are too costly.

The bill, approved by the House Appropriations Committee late Tuesday, also questions a government proposal to curb marketing of unhealthy foods to children and urges the Food and Drug Administration to limit rules requiring calorie counts be posted on menus.

The overall spending bill would cut billions from USDA and FDA budgets, including for domestic feeding programs and international food aid. The panel also cut some farm subsidies to cut spending.

Republicans are concerned about the cost of many of the Obama administration proposals, which they regard as overregulation, said Chris Crawford, a spokesman for the chairman of the Appropriations Committee's agriculture subcommittee, Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.

Crawford said the marketing guidelines, released last month, are "classic nanny-state overreach." Though the guidelines, which would restrict which foods could be marketed to children, are voluntary, many companies are concerned that they will be penalized if they don't follow them. The bill questions whether the Agriculture Department should spend money to be part of the marketing effort.

"Our concern is those voluntary guidelines are back-door regulation," he said, deploring the fact that kids can watch shows that depict sex and drugs on MTV, but "you cannot see an advertisement for Tony the Tiger during the commercial break."

The school lunch guidelines are the first major nutritional overhaul of students' meals in 15 years. Under the guidelines, schools would have to cut sodium in subsidized meals by more than half, use more whole grains and serve low-fat milk. They also would limit kids to only one cup of starchy vegetables a week, so schools couldn't offer french fries every day.

The starchy vegetable proposal has been criticized by conservatives who think it goes too far and members of Congress who represent potato-growers. They say potatoes are a low-cost food that provides fiber and other nutrients.

The Republican spending bill also encourages the FDA to limit new guidelines that require calories to be posted on menus to restaurants, asking that grocery stores, convenience stores and other places whose primary purpose is not to sell food be excluded from the rules.

The effort would dial back many of first lady Michelle Obama's priorities in her "Let's Move" campaign to curb childhood obesity and hunger.

"This shows a very clear trend in trying to undermine some of the important gains in nutrition policy," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The overall spending bill would cut billions from USDA and FDA budgets, including for domestic feeding programs and international food aid. Even after some of the money was restored Tuesday, the bill would still cut about $650 million — or 10 percent — from the Women, Infants and Children program that feeds and educates mothers and their children. It would cut almost 12 percent of the Food and Drug Administration's $2.5 billion budget, straining the agency's efforts to implement a new food safety law signed by the president early this year.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Obama’s political momentum: A little or a lot?

President Barack Obama is destined to receive a bump in his poll numbers after the killing of Osama bin Laden.

But how long will it last?

That question vexed experts Monday, with most saying the bounce is unlikely to last long enough to help the president in his 2012 re-election campaign.

“This will give him some momentum and put him out of the danger category, at least for a little bit,” said pollster John Zogby.

The first national polls probably won’t be published until today or Wednesday, Zogby said. He predicted that Obama would receive a bump of about 10 points in his job approval rating. Last week, 46 percent of Americans approved of the job Obama is doing and 46 percent disapproved, according to a Gallup poll.

That 10-point bump would be far short of the 35-point boost that President George W. Bush received in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

The popular surge in the polls could last several weeks — or longer. Or it could dissipate within days should a new crisis emerge or if American weariness with the slow-to-rebound economy or high gasoline prices again sets in.

“It’s so hard to say,” Zogby said. “There are just so many variables.”

The next presidential election is 18 months away — an eternity in American politics. Rallies “dissipate fairly quickly,” noted Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor-in-chief.

Bush enjoyed a seven-point bump in the days after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003. But it was gone late the next month when his job approval dipped to 49 percent.

But there are exceptions. After the 9/11 attacks, Bush’s job approval numbers remained elevated for 105 weeks compared with what they were before the assaults. President Franklin Roosevelt’s job approval was up for 46 weeks after Pearl Harbor.

Obama could see some lasting value with that crucial bloc of independent voters who make up about one-third of the electorate and swing presidential elections to one party or the other.

“They’re looking for resolve, problem-solving, decisiveness,” Zogby said. “And this has all of that.”

All day Monday, politicians from both parties issued statements or stood before TV cameras to offer their reactions. Almost without fail, Democrats hailed the president by name, praising his courage for, as U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri put it, “one of the most significant achievements in our nation’s efforts to combat terrorism worldwide.”

Joan Wagnon, chair of the Kansas Democratic Party, noted that the U.S. has been chasing bin Laden for 10 years.

“Obama is the one who put focus on it, authorized it and got it done,” she said.

Some Republicans also praised the president, but some did so in a slightly different way, saying the attack on bin Laden’s compound Sunday showed that Obama had followed the Bush playbook on combating terrorism or that any accolades belonged to America’s military.

“This achievement is a great triumph for the U.S. military,” said Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican. “They deserve the credit. … The president deserves credit for letting the military do its job and not pulling them off course.”

Giving a president “credit or blame” is hard, Kobach said, because “most people recognize the individual successes of the American armed forces on the battlefield.”

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a potential 2012 presidential contender, said the victory is a “tribute to the patient endurance of American justice.” He commended both Bush, “who led the campaign against our enemies through seven long years,” and Obama, “who continued and intensified the campaign in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Alex Poulter with Political Chips, a Lenexa tea party organizing group, said that the credit goes to “the greatest military in the world” and that tea partiers are “very grateful and thankful that President Obama had the wherewithal and intestinal fortitude to go against his party and his campaign rhetoric to follow the path drawn up for him by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.”

The key for Obama will be to stack up several other accomplishments in the wake of bin Laden’s death, said Kansas State University political scientist Joe Aistrup.

“If he can back it up with some more positive news in a variety of areas, this will build,” Aistrup said. “If it’s a lone victory, he’s going to be hurting come election time.”

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Obama Might Trade Parties With Paul Ryan: Laurence Kotlikoff

We all know that Democrats want to spend more on people and Republicans want to tax people less. But giving someone an extra dollar is no different than taking a dollar less from that person; raising spending is the same as cutting taxes, and cutting taxes is the same as raising spending.

Gee, maybe Democrats are closet Republicans, and Republicans are closet Democrats.

Of course some spending isn’t on people. It’s on tanks and bureaucrats. But the Democrats aren’t bigger discretionary spenders than Republicans. Bill Clinton, for example, cut discretionary spending from 8 percent to 6 percent of gross domestic product. George W. Bush raised it back to 8 percent. Since 1971, discretionary spending averaged 8 percent under Democratic administrations and 9 percent under Republican administrations.

So when it comes to discretionary spending, Republicans are Democrats and Democrats are Republicans.

This problem is on full display in the latest contretemps between “Democrat” President Barack Obama and “Republican” House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan. The president has characterized Ryan’s tax plan to cut top personal and corporate income tax rates from 35 to 25 percent as horribly regressive. But if you look closely, it may be highly progressive.

Progressive Taxation

Progessivity depends on average, not marginal taxes. Take TwoGuys, a country comprising Joe Rich and Harry Poor. Joe makes $5 million a year and pays $2 million in taxes. Harry makes $50,000 and pays $5,000 in taxes. Joe’s average tax rate is 40 percent; Harry’s is 10 percent. This outcome is progressive -- average tax rates rise with income. But, I forgot to mention, in TwoGuys, people earning more than $3.5 million face no extra tax; that is, the top rate is zero.

Conclusion: you can simultaneously lower the top rate and make the system more progressive.

Ryan is proposing dramatically broadening the tax base by curtailing or eliminating tax loopholes, such as the home mortgage-interest deduction. This break disproportionately favors the rich, saving millionaires $75,000 each on average. And Ryan’s base-broadening may include taxing capital gains and dividends at ordinary rates. In this case, the rich will pay a 25 percent, not 15 percent, tax on this income, and see both their marginal and average tax rates rise.

Next, consider cutting the corporate tax rate, which will lead to new investment, jobs, and higher wages. This isn’t a trickle-down fantasy. Just look at Ireland’s amazing growth after cutting its corporate rate.

Tax Avoidance

Unlike our personal income tax, the rich can avoid our corporate tax by investing abroad. With a higher corporate tax, capital leaves and wages (the cost of labor) fall until capital is again indifferent between staying and going. With a lower corporate tax, the opposite occurs.

Raise the corporate tax and take-home wages fall; lower it and take-home wages rise. Sounds like the corporate tax hits workers like a payroll tax.

That’s precisely what most public-finance economists believe. Hence, Ryan’s proposed cut in the corporate tax rate would, effectively, replace Obama’s temporary payroll tax cut with a permanent one -- and a roughly six times larger one at that. Haven’t the president’s economists told him this?

The president has also vilified Ryan’s Medicare voucher plan, which moves Uncle Sam from paying the fees for whatever services the health-care sector sends him to putting health care on a fixed budget. Absent such a budget, our nation will go broke, as the president himself acknowledges.

Never Worked

The president says he can limit Medicare’s fee-for-service spending through other, mainly unspecified means. But we’ve tried all types of alternatives for decades and nothing’s worked. As a result, Medicare, not Paul Ryan, is killing Medicare. As the health-care sector orders up ever-more services for the government to pay, government will be forced to cut its fees to the point that doctors will no longer cover Medicare participants.

Finally, think about Ryan’s Medicare vouchers. They are individually risk-adjusted and the poor, who are in worse shape than the rich, will get bigger vouchers. Those who will have to pay more out of pocket will be the rich.

Ryan’s voucher plan may be the most progressive reform proposed in recent memory. But the president dismissed it out of hand, saying, “I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking budget to pay for rising costs.”

Vouchers for All

To read this, you’d think Obama wouldn’t countenance vouchers for anyone. But Obama’s health plan, which covers the uninsured, provides the same vouchers that Ryan is advocating. So the president is saying vouchers are OK for uninsured workers, but not the elderly? And he’s saying leaving such workers at the mercy of the insurance industry is OK? He can’t have it both ways. Either vouchers and regulated insurance companies are OK or they aren’t.

Both are OK. As I’ve said in my last two columns, we need a single voucher system covering everyone. If Obama and Ryan sat down and spoke in French, they’d likely agree to that, as well as find common ground on taxes and discretionary spending cuts. After which, they might switch parties.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Germany's Merkel to visit with Obama June 7

The White House says its next state dinner will be a June 7 affair honoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In between the requisite Oval Office meetings with President Barack Obama and the opulent dinner, Obama will also present Merkel with the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom he recently awarded her. She did not attend a White House medal ceremony in February.

The state dinner for the chancellor and her husband, Joachim Sauer, will be the first for her country since 1992, two years after the reunification of East and West Germany. Merkel grew up in communist East Germany. In 2005, she became Germany's first female head of government.

The White House says the war in Afghanistan, the Middle East, Iran and the global economy are on the agenda. The announcement did not mention Libya, which has been a source of disagreement between the two countries.

Germany abstained from voting on the U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized a no-fly zone over Libya and protection for civilians from forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. The U.S. led the initial stages of the operation and continues to participate.

The June 7 soiree will be the fourth state dinner for Obama. Others were held for India, Mexico and China.

Spatzle is an egg-based pasta and kugelhupf is coffeecake.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

President Obama is well into campaign mode

While Republicans search for a candidate, Obama visits key states, grants interviews, steps up fundraising and courts moderate voters.

Chicago will direct fundraising, research and a vigorous new-media operation. Campaign workers are being recruited for jobs in key states to answer Republican critics, and as "trackers," monitoring the public utterances of Republican presidential contenders.

The third center of Obama's campaign operation is Democratic headquarters in Washington, where a former White House political deputy, Patrick Gaspard, has been dispatched. The national committee's rapid-response team is already pushing back, through e-mailed news releases, against undeclared Republican candidates such as Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

Obama's message lurched to the center after November's electoral blowout, and he remains focused on independent and moderate voters whose support secures victory in presidential contests. Among the issues: curbing the increasing cost of healthcare, promoting education and reducing the government's long-term deficit.

At the same time, he has shored up his liberal base by agreeing to repeal the ban on openly gay personnel in the military and ordering the Justice Department to stop defending a federal marriage law that the administration says discriminates against gays.

With Congress likely to provide, at best, grudging funding for any project, Obama is reviving the sort of low-cost, highly symbolic measures that Clinton, the most recent two-term Democratic president, used at a similar point in his presidency to lure middle-of-the-road voters.

A new White House campaign against bullying — aimed at parents, a key voter group — has both a moderate political undertone and an element of confession. Obama said that "with big ears and the name that I have, I wasn't immune" from being picked on at school.

For the time being, his aides insist the president's moves are driven by policy, not politics. After Obama sat down in the White House's Map Room with the local television reporters, his press secretary, Jay Carney, said the news outlets were selected because their markets would be affected by the president's education plans, the topic Obama wanted to discuss that day.

As for all those markets being in swing states, Carney said, "I wouldn't read too much into that."

Monday, March 7, 2011

Obama to tap Locke for China ambassador

President Barack Obama will nominate Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, the son and grandson of Chinese immigrants, to be the next U.S. ambassador to China, a senior administration official said Monday. A formal announcement could come as early as Tuesday.

If confirmed by the Senate, Locke would succeed Jon Huntsman, one of the few Republicans in Obama's administration. Huntsman's recently tendered resignation is effective at the end of April, and he is eyed as a potential GOP challenger to Obama in the 2012 presidential contest.

The administration official requested anonymity to speak ahead of the formal announcement.

Locke, 61, is the first Chinese American to serve as commerce secretary. His father and grandfather were born in China.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, hours before word of his nomination began to spread, Locke touted the economic relationship he has helped build between the U.S. and China. He said U.S. exports to China had increased 34 percent last year.

Obama sees boosting U.S. exports as a way to save and create jobs as the economy continues its slow walk out of its worst slump in a generation. He has set a goal of doubling the amount of American goods that are sold to other countries within five years — an effort in which Locke has been a key cheerleader.

Locke said China is becoming more accessible to U.S. companies, though he said that progress has been slow in coming.

"We in government and the business community want more and faster progress," he told the AP. "There's still a long way to go." The U.S. trade deficit with China reached $273.1 billion last year, the largest imbalance the United States has ever recorded with any country.

Locke said that in areas such as intellectual property rights, the U.S. needs to "keep the Chinese accountable" and "constantly monitor them, and let them know that we're not just going to accept their assurances."

As the son of a Chinese immigrant, he is held in high esteem in China.

Before joining the administration, Locke worked on China issues for a Seattle-based law firm. He joined the firm after declining to seek a third term as Washington state's governor; Locke became the nation's first Chinese-American state chief executive when he was elected governor in 1996.

White House aides have been less than thrilled by Huntsman's overt interest in exploring a presidential bid next year — and possibly becoming the Republican who tries to deny a second term to Obama, the man who soon will be his former boss.

A fluent Mandarin speaker from his service as a Mormon missionary, Huntsman has earned praise from the administration. But serving a Democratic president could become an issue should he seek the GOP nomination — something Obama recently needled Huntsman about.

"I'm sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary," the president said when he was asked about Huntsman at the White House in January.

During a Sunday talk-show appearance, Obama's chief of staff, Bill Daley, jabbed at Huntsman. Daley praised Huntsman for working closely with Obama and doing excellent work as ambassador before adding: "I'm sure he'll talk about that in the primaries."

It took Obama three tries to find his someone to be his commerce secretary.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, and later Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., each accepted job offers from Obama but then backed out — the former after the disclosure of a grand jury investigation of state contracting and the latter while citing "irresolvable conflicts" with Obama's policies.

Obama then called on Locke to fill the key Cabinet post, whose vast and jumbled portfolio includes many aspects of international trade, promoting American businesses abroad, oceans policy and the 2010 census.

ABC News first reported on Locke's pending nomination on Monday.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Rush Limbaugh attacks Michelle Obama's diet

Rush Limbaugh turned Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign into fodder for a radio show diatribe today.

Limbaugh was reacting to a report from Colorado which mentioned that the first lady ate ribs at a restaurant during her skiing holiday there this Presidents Day weekend. He said this was evidence of Obama's hypocrisy around food.

"The problem is, and dare I say this, it doesn't look like Michelle Obama follows her own nutritionary, dietary advice. And then we hear that she's out eating ribs at 1,500 calories a serving with 141 grams of fat per serving."

According to the Vail Daily, Mrs. O went to Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail Village on Saturday night, "dining on a pickled pumpkin salad with arugula and a braised ancho-chile short rib with hominy wild mushrooms and sauteed kale."

Limbaugh continued, "I'm trying to say that our first lady does not project the image of women that you might see on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue or of a woman Alex Rodriguez might date every six months or what have you."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Even “Best Friends” Have Problems

“The Americans are our best friends,” one Canadian politician told the House of Commons early in the 1960s, “whether we like it or not.” Whether we like it or not. In other words, Canadians had no choice but to be close to the Americans, the economic, military and political superpower.

That comment may not have come out quite the way the politician intended, but he was right. Ever since World War II, Canada had come to depend on the United States for defence, for the strength of its economy, even for culture. Canada had shed most of its British past; now it was North American.

It was the war that made this clear. When Britain and France suffered defeat in Europe in May and June 1940, Canada suddenly found itself Britain’s major ally and, if Britain fell to Germany, exposed to German attack. The answer was obvious: a defence alliance with the still-neutral United States, and in August 1940, Prime Minister Mackenzie King and President Franklin Roosevelt created the Permanent Joint Board on Defence. This was the first ever defence agreement between the two countries, and it was permanent. Soon, with Japan in the war, the U.S. had troops stationed in Canada, building the highway to Alaska.

Then in 1941, Canada’s wartime economy was in peril. More goods had to be imported from the U.S. to produce weapons for Britain. But the British were broke and could not pay. Again King and Roosevelt met and struck an economic deal: the Americans would buy more from Canada, balancing Canada’s spending in the United States. This was great generosity, but now Canada’s economy, like its defence, was tied to the U.S.

Everyone recognized that the war had to be won, but many preferred a Canada that was less tied to the Americans and more involved with Britain. But by the time of the peace in 1945, Britain was weak from years of struggle and could not pay for Canadian goods. This time the U.S. created the Marshall Plan to help restore the European democracies and Britain, and Canada negotiated the right to get American dollars for goods it provided the allies. That saved the Canadian economy once more, but it tightened the bonds between Washington and Ottawa.

It was the same on defence. The 1940 agreement, renewed in 1947, became important once more when the Soviet Union turned from ally to enemy. Soon the U.S. and Canada were building radar lines across Canada to warn of a Soviet bomber attack; soon some American troops again took up position in Canada; and by 1957-58, the air defences of the two countries were coordinated in the North American Air Defence Agreement.

It all made sense, but many Canadians worried that Canada was being dragged along with Washington’s global ambitions. When Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1958 and turned the Caribbean nation into a Communist state, Canada’s government tried to keep open its lines to Havana. The Americans were unhappy and even more so when the Soviet Union put nuclear missiles on the island in 1962, and Canada did not lend immediate support. President John Kennedy, furious at Prime Minister John Diefenbaker who had refused to put the country’s air force on full alert, helped drive his Conservative government from power and bring Lester Pearson and the Liberal’s to power in a 1963 election.

But Pearson’s government, though it accepted nuclear weapons from the U.S., also had its worries about American influence. Canadian companies had been bought up in vast numbers by U.S. firms, and finance minister Walter Gordon brought down a budget in 1963 that announced curbs on U.S. investment. But the Canadian media and businesses objected strenuously, along with Washington, and within days, Gordon had to withdraw the budget measures.

Canada had gone down the American road so fast and so far that most Canadians could not even think of taking back their economy or regaining control of their own defence. There really was no choice. To defend Canada’s vast territory by themselves, Canadians would need to spend huge sums; by cooperating with the U.S., the costs were less, and moreover it made military sense to defend North America jointly.

The North American economy, like defence, was integrated, and Canada could sell its goods into the U.S., the world’s biggest, richest market, and one that spoke English, just like (most of) Canada. The Common Market was closing off much European trade to outsiders, and Asia had not yet developed its economic power. In truth, there was no economic option, and as a result Canadians shared in the bounty of North America while their economy boomed.

All they lost was their independence, something they had never really had. Canada had gone from being part of the British Empire and Commonwealth directly to being an American “colony.”

Monday, February 7, 2011

Will Obama Administration reject 'dot-gay' web domains?

The Obama Administration is trying to figure out how to control the creation of new web domains, as the internet moves beyond ".com" and ".org" to options like ".gay".

CNET reports that at least 115 new suffixes are under consideration, including "car, .health, .nyc, .movie, and .web." CNET said the application process to create new domains might be finalized in San Francisco in March.

New web addresses are managed by the California-based corporation Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), under a contract paid for by the United States government.

CNET said the Obama administration wants to put together a 100-nation advisory panel that could reject web domains members found objectionable.

There are two groups currently pushing for a "dot-gay" domain: the DotGayInitiative and the .GayAlliance.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Obama, Bingaman to talk energy

President Barack Obama has summoned Sen. Jeff Bingaman to the White House on Wednesday for a one-on-one talk about energy policy, including the legislative prospects for the “clean energy” standard that was a central part of last week’s State of the Union speech.

Bingaman (D-N.M.) is Obama’s first and most important target if the so-called CES has any chance of making it into law in 2011, before presidential politics consume Capitol Hill.
A White House spokesman said Tuesday that the meeting with Bingaman was a follow up to the State of the Union message and Obama’s call for “policies to promote clean energy and strengthen our security, decrease pollution, and create new jobs.

The Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman has long been critical of the idea of including more traditional forms of energy like nuclear power and “clean coal” in a nationwide standard. Instead, he prefers an exclusive focus on renewables like wind, solar and geothermal power.

Monday, Bingaman pledged to work with the White House during a speech at the National Press Club. But he also held his ground when talking about what he thought should count toward clean energy.

“Obviously,” he said, “there are a lot of details to be worked out.”

Bingaman spokesman Bill Wicker said the senator expects to cover a lot of ground with Obama at their 4:30 p.m. meeting, from oil and gas drilling off the Outer Continental Shelf to the CES.

“It’s certainly very topical ever since the president gave it a very prominent mention in his State of the Union the other night,” Wicker said.

The Associated Press first reported Obama’s meeting with Bingaman earlier Tuesday.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Disqualifications lead to discussions on rules

The disqualification of Padraig Harrington in last week's Abu Dhabi Championship prompted golf's two governing bodies — the USGA and the R&A — to discuss and re-examine certain rules. High-definition TVs are part of the deliberations.

Harrington was DQ'd the following day for signing an incorrect scorecard after the first round. The Irishman had failed to replace his ball after it had moved a fraction of an inch — as shown on super slow-mo HD-TVs around the world — when he picked up his marker.

Changing the rule so that a player won't be DQ'd for signing an incorrect scorecard will be discussed, but it's not that simple, according to the USGAs senior director of rules and competitions Mike Davis.

"It's very complicated to change a rule because it could have such a domino effect," said Davis, although he acknowledged the problem. "The USGA and R&A are bothered that Padraig did everything within the rules, but HD-TV showed a different set of facts.

"Here you have a high-definition television showing a new set of facts that the player, his caddie or the rules official could not have seen. The golf world needs to understand we don't have our heads in the sand. But this doesn't mean rules are going to change."

Earlier this year, Camilo Villegas was DQ'd for signing an incorrect scorecard after his first round of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions after he was assessed a two-stroke penalty for illegally swatting away grass near the ball while it was still in motion. Unaware of the penalty, Villegas learned about his infraction — and DQ — 18 hours after the fact.

Both violations occurred when TV viewers contacted the PGA Tour and European Tour about the infractions.

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, speaking at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, which begins Thursday, said he has talked with officials at the USGA and R&A.

"We ought to have an intelligent, thorough discussion of what we have today and what options might be available to us," Finchem said. "Somebody told me the other day they watched a replay of the Harrington incident, and in analog television you absolutely couldn't see the ball move. It takes takes HD television to tell you that. Now, if you can't see the ball move in that kind of setting, are you really going to let that go to disqualification? I mean, there needs to be some common sense here."

Monday, January 17, 2011

President Obama Does Fulfill King's Dream

The parallel couldn't have been more stunning. One was a mass march for justice and equality, the other was a mass memorial for tolerance and remembrance. The mass march was the March on Washington in 1963. Dr. Martin Luther King's landmark "I Have a Dream" speech was both a measured and moving call for black and white unity to end segregation and racial injustice. But in a bigger sense, it was a plea for tolerance and civility.

Race was not the immediate issue in Tucson, violence and intolerance was, and President Obama's pitch perfect focus on those themes one week before the King National Holiday captured the spirit and intent of King's Washington speech. The tragedy was that it took the Tucson massacre as the occasion for Obama to address the concerns of violence and intolerance that tormented King and plagued the civil rights movement.

The March on Washington and the Tucson memorial had another striking parallel. It brought thousands of persons together across gender, class and color lines in a vocal protest against intolerance and violence. This, of course, was a hope and promise of Obama's election. It showed that millions of whites could strap racial blinders around their eyes and punch the ticket for an African-American for the world's most powerful political post. King would almost certainly have glowed with approval at that. But for a time there were a couple of troubling caveats that marred America's great racial leap forward. Obama won in large part because he did what no other Democratic presidential candidate did, and that includes Bill Clinton. He turned his presidential campaign into a virtual holy crusade by African-Americans voters to get him in the White House. At the same time, McCain trounced Obama among North and South rural, and blue collar whites. Obama won in only 44 counties in the Appalachian belt, a stretch of more than 400 counties from New York to Mississippi. Overall, he got less than a third of Southern white votes. The racial fault lines were still tightly drawn within a wide segment of the electorate.

The first two years of Obama's administration it seemed that little had changed. The racially tinged and in some cases blatant racial vilification and ridicule of Obama by the pack of extreme Tea Party leaders, right wing talk show gabbers, and bloggers and websites were relentless. Polls showed that a significant percentage of whites still vehemently opposed Obama's policies on health care, and the economy, and bought into the slur that Obama was a closet Marxist and racial agitator. These were the exact same slurs that were repeatedly tossed at Dr. King.

That Obama had received more taunts and physical threats than any other president was another troubling indication that an untold number of Americans still can't stomach the thought of an African-American in the White House.

At the heart of King's March on Washington speech and his decade of activism for racial justice and tolerance was that in fact America could both be pushed rudely, or gently evolve, into a color blind society. By that he didn't mean the phony, deliberate, and self-serving distortion of his words by many conservatives to hammer affirmative action, special programs, and initiatives and increased spending on jobs, education, and health programs for African-Americans and minorities. King never lost sight of the fact that the legacy of segregation, bigotry and discrimination trapped thousands of poor blacks and that offered no easy resolution.

Nearly a half century after King's I Have a Dream words the black poor are still just as tightly trapped in the grip of poverty and discrimination that King warned about. On the eve of the King national holiday and Obama's second year in office, the Boston based research and economic justice advocacy group, United for a Fair Economy, released its eighth annual King Day report. It found that the gaping disparities in income, wealth, employment, quality and availability of housing, decent schools, and health care between blacks, minorities and whites has grown even wider. Countless government reports and studies, and the National Urban League's 2009 State of Black America report also found that discrimination and poverty are still major barriers for millions.

Obama has publicly bristled at the notion that the civil rights movement is outdated, or worse, that he somehow supplants the ongoing work of civil rights leaders. He has repeatedly praised past civil rights leaders for their heroic battle against racial injustice. This is a fitting tribute to the civil rights movement that challenged the nation to make King's dream of justice and equality a reality. Obama faced that challenge and defied the racial odds in winning the White House. This was a major step forward. King would have cheered that. He would have undoubtedly cheered just as loudly Obama's Tucson speech. As long as bigotry, violence and intolerance exist, and Tucson showed that, King and Obama understand that there's still much to overcome.