Sunday, December 26, 2010

An unexpected Obama surge

By Don Klein

When you have the nerve to express your opinions publicly you have a tendency to occasionally to put your foot in your mouth. I experienced such a moment a mere three weeks ago when I scolded President Obama for what I concluded was a reckless abandonment of principles in giving in to the extension of tax cuts for the wealthy.

I described Obama as a " reluctant warrior" who demonstrated "failed leadership" because of his compromise with the obstinate Republican senators on extending the Bush tax cuts. I said Obama was a disappointment and was suffering from a "massive dose of languor" because he didn’t fight harder for his principles.

Then came the final week of the Lame Duck Congress just before Christmas. It proved I was wrong.

Obama turned the tables in a sudden unpredictable sweep of legislation that would have made any president proud. It was unprecedented. He managed, with the help of solid Democrat support and a handful of moderate Republicans, to demonstrate that he did indeed have the clout we all hoped he would have. He improved his image as a leader here and abroad. All of which accrues to the benefit of the nation as a whole.

Just in case you have forgotten, this is what the Obama Congress accomplished in his first two years. It is as formidable as any president could have done and surpasses the efforts of previously Republican leaders:

>Lilly Ledbetter Act, January 29, 2009. Makes it easier for workers to file
employment-discrimination lawsuits.

>SCHIP, February 4, 2009. Expands health care coverage for children.

>Stimulus, February 17, 2009. Provides $787 billion in tax cuts and additional spending to aid U.S. economic-recovery efforts

>Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, April 21, 2009. Creates incentives to foster volunteer opportunities through programs such as AmeriCorps.

>Credit Card Bill of Rights, May 22, 2009. Enhances safeguards to protect consumers from abusive practices.

>Tobacco, June 22, 2009. Provides the Food and Drug Administration with enhanced authority to regulate tobacco products

>Cash for Clunkers, August 7, 2009. Provides consumers with a cash incentive to buy automobiles with higher fuel-efficiency standards.

>Hate-Crimes Bill, October 28, 2009. Enhances law-enforcement resources to prosecute crimes based on gender and sexual orientation.

>Health Care, March 30, 2010. Overhauls the U.S. health care system to provide insurance coverage for more Americans.

>Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, March 30, 2010. Makes the federal government the provider of all student loans.

>Financial-Regulatory Reform, July 21, 2010. Expands federal government’s role in regulating financial markets.

>Tax Cuts, December 17, 2010. Extends for two years the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003.

>'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell', December 22, 2010. Lifts the ban on openly gay men and women from serving in the military

>Food Safety, December 21, 2010' Strengthens regulatory standards intended to protect the nation’s food supply.

>New START, December 22, 2010. Implements a new arms-control treaty between the U.S. and Russia.

>9/11 First-Responders Bill, December 22, 2010. Funds medical care for first responders sickened after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Add them up and there are 16 important bills in two years. Admittedly not all of them were perfect, but that is not unusual in legislation. Nothing is ever really the way many people prefer it to be. But is a sign of accomplishment.

What must be remembered is that all this was accomplished in the face of an obstructionist senate which at the whim of a single senator, bills could be delayed into oblivion. We should be particularly proud of the Democrats who stood by their guns to fight for the people down to the bloody end. We also must take our hats off to the dozen or so Republican moderates who joined the majority near the end of the session to salvage much of this legislation.

Even though may, including me, are still extremely unhappy with the extension of tax cuts for millionaires, many of whom said they would happily forgo the benefit, it seemed to be the plunger that dislodged the hopelessly stuffed legislative pipeline. I am only sorry that Obama didn’t rise to the can-do occasion before the election to possibly save the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

Make no mistake. The next two years will be no picnic on Capitol Hill. I doubt the president will be able to do as much, in fact I think most of his energy will be used to stave off the GOP, which allowed much of what was accomplished this session only because they planned to kill some of the laws by not funding much of this new legislation in the next Congress since they hold the purse strings in the House.

Nevertheless there is a new sense of reliance in Obama and his strategists. I would not sell him short given his successes during the first half of his term. The sadness is the failure of the Dream Act to pass. That should work to the disadvantage of the Republicans in the presidential election of 2012. Hispanics would be fools not to remember which party submarined the bill to aid the innocent children of illegal aliens.

The important fact is the Republicans now know they have a notable opponent in Obama and will not take him lightly as we move on to the next Congress. I look forward with lots more enthusiasm to the next two years.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Not doing the right thing

By Don Klein

When I think of bravery and self-sacrifice I can’t help but visualize the indelible and lasting image of those martyred firefighters and policemen racing into the scorching, choking New York skyscrapers in September 2001. That picture will never escape my mind.

As thousands of innocent occupants fled the inferno to safety several hundred first responders, laden down with heavy hoses and air packs, rushed into danger without regard to their safety. It was surreal. Why would they do that when good reason would insist that they exit, not enter, the death traps?

When the toll was counted after the collapse of the buildings, 343 firefighters and 60 policemen died in the tragedy.

By and large that is what firefighters and policemen do. They go where the trouble is and don’t slow down because it might be dangerous or because it is a holiday.

But that is not the end to the calamity. For months afterward scores of surviving firefighters, joined by other volunteers and off-duty cops, searched the rubble looking for survivors and when that hope dissipated, they worked to recover as many of the 2,742 of the dead they could from the entangled debris to provide them with honorable burials.

There was nothing anyone could do for the dead but the first responders who stayed at the scene for months have been rewarded by fate with dreadful health problems (severe lung ailments and untreatable cancers). Now the United States Senate rewarded them with callous indifference.

Legislation to provide relief for these heroes passed the House of Representatives but has been delayed, if not halted altogether, by Senate Republicans. Why? One reason is it involves a lot of money and in this age of monstrous deficits the Republicans only have room to remember the rich with a $900 billion unfunded boondoggle in tax cuts while real American heroes can wretch themselves into oblivion.

Senate Republicans will allow these 9/11 champions to suffer and die while they pander to the most covetous, wealthy of Americans. The Republicans don’t care because they will never get a dimes worth of campaign donations from firefighters while the upper crust will reward their political lap dogs handsomely before the next election.

Most Americans strongly disagree with these astigmatic Republicans. When I was an adolescent living in my family’s apartment in the Bronx I was awaken one night by a noisy commotion across the street in the early hours of a wintery morning. It turned out that a three alarm fire had engulfed a five story apartment house. It was so cold the water thrust from multiple fire hoses into the upper floors froze into long stalactites hanging from the fire escapes on the way down.

Mesmerized by the scene unfolding before my eyes I suddenly noticed housewives from other houses in the areas, my mother included, each bundled against the cold, carrying pots of hot coffee to the firefighters as the battle against the flames went on for hours.

It was a small gesture and they didn’t have to do it, but the sense of community was strong in those days. The firefighters were protecting their families and the least they could do was to offer them something hot on a frigid night.

Not so with our apathetic senators. Their hearts are so cold they see nothing wrong with spitting on ordinary people. They have been doing it for years. It is their second nature. What is difficult to understand is why we keep sending these contaminated minions of the rich and privileged back to Congress election after election?

Sen. Jon Llewellyn Kyl, (R-Arizona) gave another explanation why the bill to relieve the first responders should not be brought up during the lame duck period. They would have to work over the Christmas holiday week and that, according to him, "would disrespect" Christians observing Christmas.

I would like to see Kyl present one Christian, other than a rock-ribbed Republican, who would object to Congress working during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and one who would not favor giving assistance to 9/11 heroes.

The Republicans are the first to holler "class warfare" whenever anyone says that the rich should pay a larger share of income taxes than others. Yet it is senators like Kyl who are the people engaged in class warfare. Why? Because it is all right for you and me and every other ordinary citizen to work during the Christmas-New Year’s holidays but not members of Congress.

Check any fire house or police station anywhere in the country this holiday season and you will find men and women on duty as they have been during every holiday in the history of the United States. These are the working brothers and sisters of the injured first responders that Kyl disregards because he doesn’t think there is enough time to do the right thing.

We could hope the day never comes when Jon Llewellyn Kyl’s house is on fire and when the local fire house gets the alarm the crew on duty stops to take a vote requiring a super majority before the trucks roll. It would never happen because firefighters are committed to serving the public. Too bad Republican senators are not.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Bad execution vs. bad behavior

By Don Klein

For years we have been hearing the same plaintive cry from frustrated citizens: “There is not much difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. It doesn’t matter which one is in power, the result is always the same.”

Recent behavior of President Obama and the Republican leadership in Congress has given us all a clear-cut lesson in this dazzling distinction.

Of course, there are basic policy dissimilarities. The Democrats are primarily concerned with the nondescript workers and voters, unions and the moral high ground while the Republican are influenced by corporations, the military and the infinite greed of the wealthy.

Aside from this there is something that goes beyond basic policy. An important element that deserves consideration is called political style. The Democrats for all their desire to do good are poorly organized and are horrible political tacticians. The recent capitulation of Obama on Bush tax cuts is a painful example. In sports it’s called good planning, bad execution.

The Republicans on the other hand are organized and brutal in pursuit of their goals. They were despicable in their cold dismissal of such reasonable measures as medical aid to 9/11 first responders and the rejection of the patently unfair policy towards gays and lesbians called, “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

They stand on these pillars of decadence to protect their “holy grail” tax cuts for the wealthy. The Republicans don’t care how much the tax breaks for the rich will damage the deficit while they are determined to fight to the death to end unemployment insurance payments to the jobless without corresponding spending cuts.

They don’t seem to care that they are borrowing money today to pay for tax cuts that our children and their children in the decades to come will have to redeem. More importantly they are damaging the worldwide stability of the nation to reward their rich patrons.

Further, this contemptible behavior by the Republican leadership manages to get virtually 100 percent support from their ranks in Congress while the Democrats skirmish with each other like alley cats over the issues agreed to by their leadership.

You could say when thinking of the difference between the two parties the Republicans are disciplined and obedient and the Democrats act like rowdy disputants at a condo association meeting. They prove Will Rogers correct. He once said, “I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat.”

Democrats can be disappointed with their leaders, as they are now with the Obama tax deal that has split the party, but Republicans are worse than just disappointing. They are calculating and carry the banner of hypocrisy with pride and callousness.

Take one of the leading and very confusing Republicans –- Senator John McCain. He is a politician who at one time seemed to be the bright light in the Republican firmament. I am ashamed to say that at one time I considered him a candidate worthy of my vote. That was ten years ago -- before he lost his way.

If you remember 2000 when he, a war hero, fought George W. Bush, a war eluded, for the GOP presidential nomination, he was the man of rationale battling the man of claptrap. The party chose the wrong man and the country will pay for that mistake for decades to come.

The McCain who ran for president in 2008 was not the same man. He moved to the right to garner the support of those extreme elements that voted for Bush in the previous two elections and added insult to injury by choosing a buffoon as his running mate.

Take “don’t ask, don’t tell” for example. When the issue came up some time ago a reasonable McCain said that he would vote in favor of abolishing the policy if military leaders indorsed the idea. Then earlier this year when the Secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs recommended an end to the policy he said he wanted to wait until the Pentagon report on the subject was released in December.

Now that that report was out showing that the vast majority of servicemen and woman supported the end of the policy, the inscrutable McCain said it was not the time for this act because of a bad economy and he asked for another survey. Soon he is liable to oppose ending DADT because the beer tax is too high.

McCain is an enigma and a hypocrite. That should be no surprise to anyone paying attention to today’s Congress. He is just one of hundreds there. McCain is not so much the “maverick” he claims to be but more of an obedient follower who stood by his party in its deplorable disregard for 9/11 heroes and lack of concern for the jobless.

In the end Democratic leaders like Senator Harry Reid may be slow to act and negligent and President Obama may be a lousy negotiator, but the Republicans have downright scoundrels like McCain in their ranks. It’s a bad choice no matter what.

It is as if Will Rogers could see into the 21st century with his appropriate quip made years ago: “Ancient Rome declined because it had a Senate, now what is going to happen to us with both a Senate and a House.”

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The wizard that wasn't

By Don Klein

During the campaigns of 2008 many of us were lifted to great emotional heights by the words and political wizardry of Barack Obama. We saw in him the antithesis to the dark, unsettling years of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

We anticipated, or wished, that from this brilliant light from the heartland would spring forth a bold new vision of progress. We saw a young, articulate leader of intelligence and hope who would make the country well again.

Elegant and eloquent was he. Just what we needed. We saw him as a reincarnation of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy combined.

We were wrong. As president Obama was a disappointment , a pathetic 21st Century version of failed leadership. We were treated to a massive dose of languor from the Obama White House. He was a reluctant warrior.

To the dismay of the rest of us, it seems the Republican figured out Obama from the beginning. Obama is not a fighter. He is no Lyndon B. Johnson or Harry S. Truman. He is not in the mold of traditional great Democratic presidents. He will not grab an opponent by the lapels and push his ideas to fruition. Rather he is a re-embodiment of Ferdinand the Bull.

We must face the fact that he is wimpish. We need a leader for president not a easy-going guy who seems to put more energy into his basketball playing than governance. The latest betrayal by the GOP (no Senate action until tax cuts are extended) one day after "amicable" talks in the White House demonstrates how brazen his enemies have become.

The GOP has perfected the act of showing disrespect for him and the office he holds. Obama originally invited the Republican leadership to the White House for talks earlier only to be told no thanks. They said reschedule the meeting to their convenience or no soap. It is unheard of to snub an invitation to meet with a head of state on his schedule.

They seem to know they can get away with anything with Obama, especially when it is demeaning. It’s like rubbing a dog’s nose in his own grunge.

The signs were there from almost the start of his administration. His attempts at bipartisanship were a flop because he failed to recognize what everyone else knew –- the GOP was not going to cooperate on anything he proposed. He wasted a filibuster-proof Senate until Senator Ted Kennedy's death ended this advantage.

The result: the GOP emasculated the health care bill by dumping the public option into the trash can with Obama’s approval. They also weakened his financial regulation bill so that it is not much of an improvement over the past. They refused to pass legislation to care for the 9/11 first responders nor extend unemployment insurance for those longtime jobless Americans.

And what did the White House do? An infrequent mention of these events embodied deep within a speech somewhere in the hustings when a fighter would have been shouting these outrages from the rooftops.

Obama supporters are befuddled by his inaction. What happened to their knight in shining armor elected to right the wrongs of previous years?

Did he sacrifice a meaningful health care bill just to be able to brag that he was the first president ever to enact a health bill of any kind? Did his advisers suggest he should look good while not being particularly helpful.

Obama has to wake up. Get his dander up. Get rid of those who have been advising him to failure. He is half way through his initial term and he doesn’t have much time to improve if he expects a second term.

This pussycat has to turn into a tiger or the Republicans will make him look like a dupe.

1. He must hold fast to his commitment not to extend Bush tax cuts to the wealthy even if it means no tax cut for anyone else. If the GOP stands firm on its position to increase the deficit by extending tax cuts, end them all. The president can do it by a simple veto, which the GOP cannot override.
2. To cut the deficit he can do a number of things. First, end the Afghanistan war and cutoff aid to Pakistan. And while he is at it, close US bases in Europe and Asia and bring home troops based there. He must tell the Republicans they will not get their way with his prerogatives as president. Use the veto whenever.
3. He must loudly trumpet all the shifty Republican policies which do not serve the public – like denial of unemployment insurance and health care for first responders.
4. He should be at least as forceful with Congress as he was in the case of the Harvard professor and the Cambridge cop. In that instance he stuck his nose where it didn’t belong. In Washington politics his nose belongs in the GOP’s face.

The truth is I don’t think he will do any of these things in the next two years. He looks upon confrontation as bad politics (even though it worked for the GOP in the midterm elections) and will continue fruitlessly to try to work with his political opponents.

In that case I believe, even though it is unlikely under normal circumstances, that there will be a strong attempt to oppose a sitting president in the 2012 party primaries and he could be replaced by a more aggressive potential leader. If Obama doesn’t change his tactics many will find that solution favorable.