Accessing Obama’s Legacy

Last night, President Obama gave his final State of the Union speech. I want to take some time to reflect on his seven years in office, as he nears the finish line and the country readies itself to elect someone in November to succeed him. Confession: I have always been an Obama supporter. I was a canvasser on his 2008 campaign and a canvass director for his 2012 campaign. I made lifelong friends through both campaigns, and generally, I think that he has governed with an even hand and level-headed temperament. That said, there are certainly mistakes he made during both terms, and at the end of his speech, he acknowledged one of his biggest regrets, which I’ll address later in this post.

First, it is important to consider where the country was when President Obama was sworn in in January 2009. Unemployment was around 10 percent. The country was bogged down in Iraq, and Wall Street crashed the world economy. (Please, go see The Big Short!) Obama’s campaign caught fire because the country was wary of George W. Bush, who left office with an approval rating in the 30s.  The genius of Obama’s first campaign could be found in its main slogan, “Yes, we can.” Simple, right? The country desperately needed optimism at the time, and here was a freshman senator from Illinois who toppled the establishment candidate in the primaries, Hillary Clinton. Here was  a fresh young voice who promised to govern differently and change politics as usual. It was a message that resonated, and Obama had a sweeping victory in 2008, one which increased the Democratic Party’s majorities in the Senate and House.

Obama’s promise to change politics and heal the divide harkened back to his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address, in which he said that America shouldn’t be divided by red states and blue states. At the time, I was in college and wrote for the student newspaper. After the convention, I penned an editorial stating that Obama was a rising star in the party, presidential material. Four years later, he ran and won.

Yet, perhaps it can be said that President Obama’s promises of change and altering the political landscape to bring the parties together was naïve. In 2012, it was reported that on the day of President Obama’s first inauguration, Republican leaders, including  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, new House Speaker Paul Ryan, former House Leader Eric Cantor, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and others met to discuss how best to counter Obama. So just as his first term was beginning, the opposing party was deciding how best to stop his agenda.

The Republican’s main defense against the Obama Administration has been utter gridlock, especially after the 2010 and 2014 mid-term elections, when they won control of Congress and a majority of state legislatures.  Congress has not done much and has a dismal approval rating. By doing nothing, the GOP-led Congress has made it seem like government is totally inefficient.  This has impacted the president, pulling down his approval rating, which has not climbed out of the 45 percent range much at all during both terms.

Still, the president managed to get re-elected again in 2012, by quite a large margin. If you look back on his seven years in office, there are a number of accomplishments. Unemployment is now around 5 percent. Gas prices are falling under $2 a gallon. Two progressive justices have been appointed to the Supreme Court. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. More Americans have health insurance. The auto industry is alive. Gay marriage is now legal, and recently, through executive action, new gun laws are on the books, including stronger background checks, which most Americans, including gun owners favor.

Last night, the president’s final SOTU address was meant to counter the pessimism and sour mood plaguing the country. Despite lower unemployment, Americans don’t feel like they’re getting a fair shake. The economic crash and the bailout proved just how rigged the game is. Meanwhile, wages have remained stagnant since the Reagan years. This is why Bernie Sanders has so much support on the left and why Trump is so popular on the right. People are mad, feeling as though the change the president promised in 2008, the message of “Yes, we can” never panned out.

Yet, Obama’s legacy is quite impressive. Still, though, Obama was naïve to think dissolving the divide in Washington would be easy, or even possible. Near the end of his speech last night, he admitted that one regret he has is that the political environment is just as bad or even more toxic than when got to the White House. He offered some solutions, such as campaign finance reform to get big money out of politics and ending gerrymandering. However, it’s not likely any of that will happen soon, especially in an election year.

Right now, the country is mad as hell and doesn’t want to take it anymore. This is an election year in which anything could happen. Trump may very well be the Republican nominee and Sanders could beat Clinton. Latest polling shows him close to her in Iowa and beating her in New Hampshire, the first two primary states. Yet, voters would do well to remember where the country was in 2008. Certainly, we’re better off than where we were. Still, there is work to be done, especially on fairer wages and boiling racial tensions. The president also reminded Americans that in a Jeffersonian, representative democracy, citizen participation is a must. That is what the whole “Yes, we can” slogan was all about. In 2008, too many voters thought that electing one candidate who promised change would quell all of the country’s woes, but it’s more complicated than that. No candidate elected this November will be able to fix everything. That requires real citizen engagement, which is work. Is the country up to the task, or do citizens just want to be angry, vote for the loudest candidate, and then go back to being unengaged the day after the election?







Selma: 50 years later

If you browse through today’s newspapers in the U.S. and flip to the opinion page, you’ll probably see write-ups on President Obama’s speech to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the march in Selma for voting rights. The consensus is that the president delivered quite a speech, one that echoed the rhetoric of his 2008 campaign, specifically the idea that American history is always unfolding and we all have a part to play in it. The speech touched upon everything from the American Revolution, to Jim Crow, to Selma, to recent events in Ferguson. The president also urged the Republican-led Congress to renew parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court gutted about two years ago, and he noted that Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush renewed the Voting Rights Act. Perhaps more importantly, he called out those who refuse to vote, asking, “How do we so casually disregard the right for which so many fought?” I suggest watching the president’s speech. I’ll be sharing it with my African American Lit. class this week. Here’s the video:

The Impact of Sequestration Locally

Because the U.S. Congress and White House were unable to reach a budget deal, President Obama had to sign off on sequestration, meaning numerous automatic spending cuts. This issue is basically a self-imposed crisis Congress created for itself when it couldn’t reach a long-term fiscal cliff deal in the last Congress. Perhaps Democrats were naive in thinking the GOP would never allow deep spending cuts to the Pentagon, but here we are, half a week after the sequestration deadline passed, and still no solution. The impact of sequestration will most likely be felt starting in the beginning of April. There will be longer lines at airports, since TSA funding will be slashed. There will be fewer flights, since there also be fewer air traffic controllers. Teachers will be laid off. States will lose federal funding for police and firefighters. And the list goes on.

The impact of sequestration is already being felt here in northeast, Pennsylvania. The Wilkes-Barre-based paper, The Citizens’ Voice, has a front page story today that Tobyhanna Army Depot, one of the largest employers in the region, is set to unveil $309 million in budget cuts, resulting in the furloughs of 5,136 civilian employees. According to the article, “Facility managers and the unions are working on the details of the furlough, in which the 5,136 employees will be required to take 22 non-consecutive furlough days between late April and Sept. 30 unless the federal budget impasse in Washington, D.C., is solved.”

What’s especially alarming is that Congress has more impending deadlines, including the debt ceiling. This week, House Speaker John Boehner said something needs to be done to ensure there is not one crisis after the other. However, I am skeptical he will get his Congress and its Tea Party wing to really pass a long-term plan that has the support of some Democrats and avoids another self-imposed crisis. This sequestration and the failure to resolve it has only increased tensions on the Hill.

Ironically, the stock market broke a record yesterday, as the Dow Jones soared to an all-time high. Since 2007, corporate profits have been skyrocketing, but job creation remains dismal and the unemployment rate remains stuck at 7.8-8 percent. Meanwhile, if this sequestration issue is not resolved, then middle and low-income workers will be hit the hardest, as evidenced by the article today in The Citizens’ Voice.



Inagural Poet Chosen

It was announced this week that Richard Blanco will serve as the 2013 inaugural poet and now must compose and read a new poem for the president’s ceremonial swearing-in on the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 21. The New York Times has a great article about the poet and his reoccurring themes of place, identity, and his Latino heritage. In the article, Addie Whisenant, the inaugural committee’s spokeswoman, said President Obama picked Mr. Blanco because the poet’s “deeply personal poems are rooted in the idea of what it means to be an American.”

I only discovered Blanco’s work very recently, after the poetry organization Split This Rock published its list of the best poetry books of 2012. Blanco’s latest collection, Looking for the Gulf Motel, made the list. I got a copy for Christmas and devoured it in one or two sittings. I’m currently in the process of writing a review of it for Poets’ Quarterly. Based on Blanco’s work, I feel he is a wonderful pick to read at the president’s inauguration. Obama won re-election with a diverse coalition, especially the Latino vote. Blanco, who was conceived in Cuba, born in Spain, and  raised and educated in Miami, is representative of the changing demographics of the United States, a change that helped get Obama elected twice. Like the president, Blanco is of mixed heritage, and his poems address that, often incorporating lines of Spanish in the stanzas.

Blanco is the fifth inaugural poet. The tradition was started when John F. Kennedy asked Robert Frost to read in January 1961. The tradition was picked up again in the 1990s when Bill Clinton selected Maya Angelou. I’ve posted some videos below from the inaugurations, including an audio recording of Frost reading the inaugural poem “The Gift Outright” and Elizabeth Alexander reading “Praise Song for the Day” from President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.

Don’t Panic, People!

A lot of my liberal friends have been moaning and groaning over the last few days after President Obama’s lackluster debate performance last week. However, I’ve been telling them not to worry, at least not yet. In the last few decades, incumbant presidents have more times than not lost the first debate. Ronald Reagan had a poor performance against Walter Mondale in 1984. George Bush Sr. lost the first debate to Clinton. George Bush Jr. lost the first round to John Kerry in 2004. All of those candidates, other than Bush Sr., went on to win re-election.

Furthermore, the president was never a good debtor. He lost several of the debates to Hillary Clinton in 2008, and he lost the first debate to John McCain after securing the Democratic nomination. He is better at giving speeches, especially when he hasn’t debated in four years and his opponent went through a long, drawn-out primary season with a record number of debates.

Sure, Mitt Romney got a bit of a bounce from the first debate. However, President Obama is still ahead in the electoral count, and that’s what matters most.  Just about every electoral map has Obama ahead. Here is a sampling of the Huff Post’s map and The New York Times map, as two examples.

It was probably likely the race was going to tighten after the debate anyways. The president enjoyed a post-convention bounce and was pulling ahead. Romney is enjoying a slight post-debate bounce, but bounces fade after a week or two.

Meanwhile, if you want to get involved in the election, for either candidate, the offices always need help. I continually tell my friends that instead of posting political rants on Facebook, they should do phonebanking, canvassing, or voter registration.

And the Affordable Care Act Lives On

A few months ago, when the solicitor general was arguing in favor of the Affordable Care Health in front of the nine Supreme Court Justice, I felt, as did many others, that Obama’s signature health-care law was doomed. The justices, other than the four usually liberal ones, had stern questions regarding the bill, including Chief Justice John Roberts, who continually questioned whether or not the federal government has the power to make people buy health insurance.By 2014, the bill will require that 30 million uninsured people buy insurance, and if they can’t afford it, they will be a given a tax credit/government subsidies to do so.

When I learned of the ruling today, I was shocked, especially since Roberts was the one who joined four liberal justices in voting to uphold all of the law. My hunch is that Roberts does not want to be on the wrong side of history. Another health-care bill is not going to be discussed, not with the government as divided and partisan as it is. I think Roberts and the other four justices that voted to uphold the law realized this could be the only shot in a long, long time at revamping and improving our health-care system and granting health-care coverage to millions of more Americans.

Shortly after the court’s ruling, Mitt Romney got on TV and vowed to repeal the bill if elected president. However, that likely won’t happen. He would need at least 60 votes in the Senate to get that, and it won’t happen, especially if the Dems maintain control of the Senate. Romney also doesn’t have much room to rail against the law, since he passed the same exact thing in MA when he was governor, and said  in 2006 that the mandate should be the model for the rest of the country.

President Obama still has a lot of work to do explaining to the American people what is in the bill and how it impacts them. Here are some positives of the law:

Young people can stay on their parents’ insurance until they are 26.

Insurance companies will not be able to deny people coverage based on pre-existing conditions.

Women will no longer pay higher premiums than men.

Seniors will get discounts on their prescription drugs.

About 30 million uninsured people will have to buy insurance by 2014, when the mandate kicks in, and if they can’t afford it, they will be given a tax credit/government subsidies to do so.

I was not a fan of the mandate back in 2010, and I wanted the Democrats to push for a public option, but I understand that this is a first step, and by 2014, millions of American will be insured. I am also optimistic that a lot of states will go to single-payer, nearly universal healthcare coverage. I say this because the law states that by 2016, states can set up whatever healthcare systems they want, and they don’t have to create a pool of just private insurance companies. Vermont and Montana are nearing creating a single-payer system, and it is predicted to save the states a lot of money. If it succeeds there, it will most likely spread to other states.