President Barack Obama has a problem. It is not his vision for change or the soaring unemployment rate of 9.1 percent. It is neither the dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan nor the growing apathy within his Democratic party. Unfortunately, he inherited some of these challenges from the previous administration. His problem? How does he marry audacious leadership and hope while facing fierce opposition and disrespect?
During the summer, the president sought the middle ground, trying to appeal to independent voters. At first glance, this strategy appeared to be an excellent one for a 2012 re-election: to stay above the fray and reaffirm to independents that he is not an “angry” or “reactionary” Black man, and that he is above the disrespect and childish political antics of John Boehner, Eric Cantor and rest of the Republican Party.
Indeed, the primary challenge facing Obama is contending with the forces who want to gain control of the Oval Office and who are willing to stop at nothing to apprehend it — even if it means bringing the U.S. financial market unnecessarily to her knees.
In order to save America, and even his presidency, the president must emerge as the master strategist to combat forces that would muddy the waters between allies and foes, and stir deleterious and counterproductive debate amongst his voting base that is designed to distract, discourage, dissuade, and ultimately defeat him.
To be victorious, Obama must redouble his efforts to maintain focus and to become what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “…not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.”
Please understand: I enthusiastically support President Barack Obama. In 2008, I organized Clergy for Change, the first interfaith and interracial breakfast in Philadelphia to support and elect then Senator Obama. My call for leadership should not be aligned with the likes of Tavis Smiley or Cornel West.
However, when 14 million Americans are unemployed, the housing market is in a tailspin, the economy is on the brink of a double-dip recession and your most loyal base is feeling the most financial pain, we need our president to dare to be our most audacious leader.
On Thursday night, delivering his jobs speech in the House chamber — a venue used only three times within the past 20 years except for the State of Union addresses — President Obama took a crucial step in bold and daring leadership.
Principally, the president exhorted Congress to pass a jobs bill that would:
— Cut the payroll tax and put more money in the pockets of working and middle class Americans, saving families an average of $1,500 a year;
— Provide an additional tax cut to any business that hires or increases wages;
— Extend jobless benefits to the unemployed, with special emphasis on those out of work at least six months and those in low-income neighborhoods.
— Spend $140 billion to save and create jobs to repair deteriorating schools and rebuild roads, railways, and airports.
President Obama is a gifted politician. He is smart, attentively listens and knows how to take our nation’s challenges and develop them into a clear, bipartisan vision. While he is a great visionary, he must do more than cast vision. He must be guided by his convictions rather than allow his enemies to cast him as one who occasionally acquiesces or abdicates his leadership.
The security of America and yes, even the presidency, dangles at the end of a very short rope. We have less than 14 months before next year’s presidential election. America is in desperate need of our president to rise again as the bold, thoughtful, prayerful, no holds barred people’s champion and leader we know him to be.
At the end of the day, leaders are not judged solely on their poll numbers, but rather their principles. And while poll numbers cannot be ignored, they should never be the compass guiding the leader. We are depending upon this great leader to change this nation and set it on the right course again. Will President Obama emerge as the courageous, audacious leader for these extraordinary times? I believe he will because that’s what great, audacious leaders do.
As always, keep the faith.
The Rev. Dr. Kevin R. Johnson is the senior pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church.
Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech was routine in many ways. There’s the president’s long walk to the podium after being announced by the Sergeant at Arms, “Mister Speaker, the President of the United States.” The president then shakes hands with as many lawmakers as possible, which isn’t easy since they’re all elbowing each other in the ribs while jockeying for position on the aisle.
The speech itself, as expected from one of America’s all-time great speechmakers, was brilliantly written and masterfully delivered. It rose in cadence and pace as he went along — first through the foreign policy section, where President Obama promised an end to the war in Afghanistan while shaking his fist at North Korea and Iran - then the domestic policy section where he outlined the path to growth and job creation, including increasing the minimum wage to $9 an hour.
But when he got around to the section on gun control, he pivoted from dignified statesman to fire-and-brimstone preacher. He pointed out the parents of the promising young girl killed by gunfire only a mile from his Chicago home, and the families of the innocent victims in Newtown and Aurora, and gravely wounded former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and charged congress with dragging its feet on gun control legislation.
“They deserve a vote!” Obama bellowed again and again, pointing to the victims of gun violence and bringing the faithful Democrats to their feet in wild applause. Even Republicans, who had been sitting on their hands through the entire speech, were shamed into a tepid ovation, lest they be seen as unsympathetic to the victims of America’s mad obsession with bigger and more powerful firearms.
Later, after having had time to get their stories straight, Republican pundits and strategists chastised the president for using those victims of violence as a prop - essentially turning tragedy to his advantage by using it for a bit of political theater.
There is, admittedly, some truth to that. Obama did use the moment as political theater, and did indeed highlight those families and victims of tragedy to force a serious national conversation on gun control. But so what? First, he did it masterfully and without the slightest indignity to those families. And second, since when did the GOP suddenly get righteous about using a tragedy to advance a political agenda? The Patriot Act, the casual use of torture, warrantless searches and imprisonment, and a thousand other Republican policies came as a direct result of the GOP playing on the national emotions after 9/11.
Then the president broke it wide open at the end. Obama told the story of a Florida woman who waited in a long line for many hours for the chance to vote, and whose determination inspired those who waited in line with her. That woman, 102-year old Desiline Victor, stole the show.
Even orange-faced John Boehner, who fully supported the various voter suppression policies and initiatives of his fellow Republicans in this election — those policies directly responsible for her pain and inconvenience, was forced to stand and applaud Desiline, who smiled and waved at Obama like he was her grandson.
My favorite part, though, was the Republican response to the State of the Union, delivered by their newest Great Brown Hope, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Apparently, after Bobby Jindal’s disastrous performance in the role in 2009, they needed another minority face, and Rubio — young, handsome and articulate, fills the bill.
Rubio’s response, though, was sad and amateurish. He accused Obama of hating the free market system, raising taxes and several other sins — none of which were mentioned at all in Obama’s speech. It was as if his GOP bosses just grabbed one of Paul Ryan’s old speeches from last year out of the office trash can and pushed it into Rubio’s hand two minutes before sending him out to deliver it.
Looking uncomfortable and not at all ready for prime time, Rubio wiped his brow, wiped his lips, and wiped the sweat off his face. He even hilariously leaned out of the camera shot to grab a bottle of water, stealing a glance back at the camera as he sipped nervously before continuing.
Rubio’s problem, though, is the same as Jindal’s. The GOP isn’t interested in changing their policies or platform to appeal to minorities — they just assume that we’ll think better of them if those same racist, xenophobic, homophobic, backward policies are delivered by someone with darker skin.
Next year, if Rubio turns out not to be the golden child they’d hoped, maybe the Republican response will just be Justice Clarence Thomas screaming, “You lie!”
Daryl Gale is the city editor of the Philadelphia Tribune.
Folks have hinted at it for months, nibbling around the edges of a thorny issue, but I’ve had enough, and its time to declare the truth once and for all:
The Republican Party has gone stark raving mad.
They’re completely nuts. Off the chain. Slippin’ into darkness. And worse, they’re proud of it — each competing to see which of them can out-crazy the others. There are no such things as moderate Republicans anymore. The moderate wing of the GOP is dead — the Arlen Specters and just-retired Olympia Snowes of the Party have been beaten into submission by their tea party brethren — leaving behind the present crop of frothing-at-the-mouth maniacs who stand for nothing, but stand against everything.
Sure, when they were elected in that nationwide tsunami of 2010, the new GOP, led by their orange-tinted puppet master John Boehner, promised they’d focus exclusively on the economy, jobs and getting Americans back on their financial feet. They’d right the ship of state, they said — repeal those job-killing liberal policies, and give the country back to the middle class.
It was all a big, fat lie.
Since then, they’ve focused on social engineering, cultural battles fought and won 50 years ago, and ways to make the rich richer. They’ve introduced anti-abortion, anti-immigration and anti-worker’s rights legislation out the wazoo, but not one bill to spur job growth.
The latest ponderously stupid idea catching fire among the GOP ranks: to make the abortion process more invasive and twice as humiliating for young women facing difficult choices, they’ve put forth legislation in several states that would require doctors to perform unnecessary, vaginally-invasive ultrasound procedures prior to any abortion.
The draconian measure was voted down in Mississippi, and Virginia lawmakers are now squirming to backtrack on their own bill once exposed to the light of media scrutiny — and the wrath of hundreds of thousands of women.
I know what you’re thinking. Maybe they could float that craziness down Aouth, but up here in the progressive North, no one would dare to introduce such a blatantly anti-woman piece of legislation. Right?
Well, say hello to Pennsylvania House Bill 1077, the so-called “Woman’s Right-to-Know Act,” which would — you guessed it — force women to undergo a mandatory and invasive ultrasound at least 24 hours before receiving abortion care.
There are, of course, constitutional scholars who suggest the idea is wrong on its face, and just plain unconstitutional.
University of Pennsylvania Professor of Law Tobias Barrington Wolff is quoted as saying, “The Supreme Court has held that a State cannot pass laws for the purpose of obstructing a woman’s access to a legal abortion, nor impose undue burdens on that access. A law mandating that doctors perform a medically unnecessary procedure, including the use of an invasive trans-vaginal probe in some cases, and requiring doctors to position an ultrasound monitor in the woman’s face whether or not she wants to watch it, appears designed to intimidate and humiliate. Pennsylvania cannot mandate such mistreatment of women.”
Forget, for a moment, the flagrant unconstitutionality of this madness, and just consider it from a human rights perspective. The legality of abortion, evidenced in the Roe v. Wade decision, has been black letter law for a generation. These GOP lawmakers would have America turn back the clock 50 or 60 years on women’s rights without giving it a second thought.
And it’s not just abortion. The very notion of contraception as we know it, long the prerogative of modern American women and couples, has been assailed by GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum and a host of his knuckle-dragging friends. Interestingly, you may have noticed that the predominant voices on that side of the debate have been an all-male chorus. Indeed, a congressional hearing on the subject two weeks ago was notable mostly for its conspicuous absence of women on the panel.
And here’s another sobering thought: if they’re willing to roll back women’s rights, why not civil rights? Why not decree that private restaurant owners have every right to refuse service to Blacks, as subtly suggested by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul? Or that you don’t have to rent your property to Hispanics, or gays, or anyone else you don’t happen to like?
Since their rise to power, the GOP has championed the cause of millionaires, corporations, big oil and gas and fat defense contractors. They have simultaneously and deliberately alienated labor unions, public employees, gays, racial minorities, the elderly, the poor and the middle class.
This is not your father’s Republican Party. It’s something much, much worse.
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.
President Obama “slow jams the news”? Is this a nakedly bold pitch for the youth vote or what?
I’m talking about the president’s appearance Tuesday night on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” In front of a live audience at the University of North Carolina, the nation’s commander-in-chief took charge in “slow jamming the news,” an occasional feature on the late-night show.
It consists of reciting some news of the day with anchorman seriousness while backup singers and The Roots, Fallon’s house band, lay down some smooth jazz in the background, punctuated with appropriate repetitions of “baby.”
The stunt posed a risk, even to Obama’s famously cool stagecraft. Many a middle-ager has bombed with lame attempts to sound cool in front of their children and other young’uns. As a parent, I speak from hard-learned experience. But I can get away with it. It is part of my unwritten job description as a parent to embarrass my kid from time to time. Politicians in public aren’t that lucky.
Obama wisely stuck to a familiar script. Speaking to his collegiate audience, he filled his slow jam with applause lines from the stump speech that he was barnstorming to campuses in Iowa, Colorado and North Carolina — three states that he won in 2008 but that appear to be up for grabs now.
His main issue has strong appeal to the hearts and wallets of college students, post-grads and their families: student loans. It also has a new urgency at the moment. Unless Congress acts, the current subsidized rates on new Stafford student loans will expire in July, doubling the rate borrowers pay from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. That difference amounts to an average increase of $1,000 per year per student.
Mellowed by his mood-music background, the president injected the hopelessly stodgy student loan issue with a comical dose of hip and cool:
“Now is not the time,” he said, directly addressing the camera, “to make school more expensive for our young people.”
“Ohhhh, yeah,” Fallon chimed in like Isaac Hayes murmuring sweet nothings into his microphone. “You should listen to the president.”
That’s what the president hopes, especially if it leads to more re-election votes. He needs to rekindle the Yes-We-Can enthusiasm among young voters that propelled him to the Oval Office in 2008. He has a 17 percentage point advantage over his presumptive Republican rival Romney among voters between 18 and 29, according to a nationwide poll by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. But almost a third in that age group is undecided. Obama has an advantage with under-30 voters that he needs to energize to offset his deficits with older voters, particularly white, blue-collar males.
One wonders how Romney might attempt to reach more millennials, as many are calling the first youngsters to come of age in this century. He could try a David Letterman “Top Ten List,” although that’s already been done. Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried it as Romney’s Republican rival. He did a good job, but his campaign fizzled out anyway.
Romney is better off playing it straight, as when he offered a straightforward response to Obama’s position on student loans that amounted to two words: Me, too.
“I fully support the effort to extend the low interest rate on student loans,” he told reporters on Monday in what may be his first major move toward the middle as Republican frontrunner.
That’s a switch from his earlier support of the Republican budget plan proposed last month by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a plan that calls for removing the subsidies that keep Stafford loan rates low.
And Speaker John Boehner appeared to be moving toward the middle, too, as he rushed a mostly party-line vote on a $5.9 billion bill to maintain low interest rates for Stafford loans. But familiar partisan disputes erupted over the measure’s funding. The money would come from a provision of Obama’s health care law for breast cancer screening and other preventive measures. Democrats wanted to fund the bill by cutting oil subsidies.
Take careful notes, students. As the clock ticks away, your student loan rates may well be the prize in Congress’ next big partisan faceoff. Choose your own background music.
WASHINGTON — Another Christmas and yet another bitter, sandbox fight to the last word between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill that had working folks and poor folks on unemployment biting their nails.
This time, it was over the payroll tax cut. Late into the pre-Christmas week before the remaining members of Congress headed back to their districts for gift-wrapping and fundraisers, House and Senate leaders managed to cobble together a deal.
The deal, however, only kicks the schedule up two months from now at a place where frustrated lawmakers — only concerned with political optics — will go at it again. Remixing old Washington sauce, Congressional leaders simply ripped a page from the debt ceiling debate and crafted a Senate-picked conference committee that will negotiate the terms of a year-long tax cut after Jan. 1.
Many House Republicans are infuriated by any deal that makes the White House look good. Arriving at the point of a bruising fight over a tax cut is perplexing, as well, considering the bizarre nature of the debate. Two stories emerge: one buried in the percentages and complex math of the tax code and the other which sheds light on the ideological fault lines creating gridlock in Congress these days.
In a rare move engineered to attract independent-minded fiscal conservatives who would have otherwise thought twice about giving President Barack Obama a second term, Democrats pushed a tax cut. Republicans, regardless of how many ways they sliced it and diced it, did not. It was slick political maneuvering.
A tax cut is a tax cut is what Democrats are saying: so what’s the problem?
Republicans, presently trying to hold their party together as the GOP presidential primary gets complicated with the surge of Newt Gingrich, were somewhat dazed and confused, unwilling to give Democrats or the president a political point and frustrated they may have to reconfigure their golden mantra.
But, hidden deep in the debate over the payroll tax cut is the fate of Social Security, a program that impacts the 70 million Americans who earned it. Some Hill insiders, exhausted from the back-and-forth indecision, wondered aloud about what constant temporary payroll tax cut “fixes” would do to the longer-term entitlement.
“Forget about kicking the can,” complained one senior Democratic congressional staffer requesting anonymity. “We might be kicking Social Security in the gut if we keep it up at this rate. You keep cutting the payroll tax and you might end up having next to nothing to pay for Social Security.”
Payroll taxes are the primary funding source for Social Security. Interestingly enough, most reports conveniently omit the fact that it’s really a “Social Security payroll tax.” This is the tax that, theoretically, is supposed to end up directly in the pockets of retirees. Constant cuts to those, the argument rings, could harm Social Security down the line, particularly if the cuts get longer and more sustained — something worrying many analysts who are watching the debate closely. Workers looking for the short term grace of an extra $40 a paycheck may be stunned when retirement approaches to one day find an insolvent and non-existent entitlement.
Lack of willpower in Washington is driven by the greed of re-election in 2012. Neither party wants to be the one that is seen as taking money out people’s paychecks, which is as simple as the political narrative gets. Hence, politically, the White House outwitted and played House Republicans in the final analysis. “Senator Reid and I have reached an agreement that will ensure taxes do not increase for working families on January 1 while ensuring that a complex new reporting burden is not unintentionally imposed on small business job creators,” said House Speaker John Boehner after the deal was reached on Thursday afternoon. Translated: I don’t want anybody pointing fingers at me come Election Day.
“Because of this agreement, every working American will keep his or her tax cut — about $1,000 for the average family ... Vital unemployment insurance will continue for millions of Americans who are looking for work. And when Congress returns, I urge them to keep working to reach an agreement that will extend this tax cut and unemployment insurance for all of 2012 without drama or delay,” said the president. Translated: Remember what I just did for you on Election Day.
Essentially, both sides use the tax cut as voting pay-to-play, ethereal funny money used to bribe the voter subconscious into thinking they get something for next to nothing. All they have to do is vote for that person in November.
But, in the statements and funky platitudes flowing out of Washington, there is no mention of what this means for Social Security, the long heralded titan entitlement once thought of as untouchable. Yet, in the constant tennis game over debt and deficit, politicians keep biting at the edges of Social Security, inching closer and closer to its demise or the point where they can comfortably say it’s no longer viable — just enough without offending the massive voting bloc that loves it so much.
Therein lies the problem: Social Security is too much of a risky long game these days. Tax cuts are an easy short sell.
“Middle-class working families need tax relief to help them survive in this terrible economy,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., conceded earlier in the week, “but diverting billions of dollars from Social Security to provide that tax relief is wrong. This continues a dangerous process that began last year. I strongly believe tax relief should be done in a different way.”
Sanders, keeping it straight with no chaser, was one of a daring few on Capitol Hill that attempted to explain the real risk behind the payroll tax cut. If you keep cutting payroll taxes, where are you going to get your Social Security from?
“If Congress continues to cut the program’s funding source, one of two things must happen: 1) Social Security’s insolvency will be accelerated; or 2) Social Security will have to increasingly rely on general revenues (i.e., income taxes) to pay beneficiaries,” explains the Mercatus Center’s Charles Blahous.
That tension, however, between short term electoral gratification and long term commonsense is palpable as media heads, pundits and Election [Game] Day strategists play gotcha with candidates. It was played out in a recent interview in which CNN’s Wolf Blitzer backed GOP Presidential candidate and former Senator Rick Santorum, R– Pa., into the corner.
“But am I hearing you correctly, Senator?” asked Wolf on prowl for a rating and an Emmy. “You’re saying you do want to increase taxes January 1st for 160 million Americans?”
Santorum, nervous, waffled around at first. “I want to keep the tax — the taxes leveled on Social Security right now — the taxes leveled do not pay the benefits,” he replied. “There is more money being paid out in Social Security benefits than there is coming in to Social Security trust fund dollars.”
But, a second later, the fog cleared up and Santorum was sounding as if he’d been coached by liberal nemesis Bernie Sanders. “I am for tax cuts. I’d be very happy to come back and talk to the president about how we’re going to provide tax relief for millions of Americans. But I’m not — I’ve never been for a Social Security tax cut, because it undermines our ability to pay Social Security benefits.”
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department declared Friday that Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to withhold information about a bungled gun-tracking operation from Congress does not constitute a crime and he won't be prosecuted for contempt of Congress.
The House voted Thursday afternoon to find Holder in criminal and civil contempt for refusing to turn over the documents. President Barack Obama invoked his executive privilege authority and ordered Holder not to turn over materials about executive branch deliberations and internal recommendations.
In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, the department said that it will not bring the congressional contempt citation against Holder to a federal grand jury and that it will take no other action to prosecute the attorney general. Dated Thursday, the letter was released Friday.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the decision is in line with long-standing Justice Department practice across administrations of both political parties.
"We will not prosecute an executive branch official under the contempt of Congress statute for withholding subpoenaed documents pursuant to a presidential assertion of executive privilege," Cole wrote.
In its letter, the department relied in large part on a Justice Department legal opinion crafted during Republican Ronald Reagan's presidency.
Frederick Hill, the spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, said it is regrettable that "the political leadership of the Justice Department" is taking that position. Issa, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman, is leading the effort to get the material related to Operation Fast and Furious.
Although the House voted Thursday to find Holder in criminal and civil contempt, Republicans probably are still a long way from obtaining documents they want for their inquiry into Operation Fast and Furious, a flawed gun-tracking investigation focused on Phoenix-area gun shops by Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The criminal path is now closed and the civil route through the courts would not be resolved anytime soon.
"This is pure politics," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
"Remarkably the chairman of the committee involved here has asserted that he has no evidence that the attorney general knew of Operation Fast and Furious or did anything but take the right action when he learned of it.
"No evidence, so if you have no evidence as he has stated now about the White House and the attorney general, what else could this be but politics?"
More than 100 Democrats walked out of the House chamber to boycott the first of two contempt votes, saying Republicans were more interested in shameful election-year politics than documents.
Republicans demanded the documents for an ongoing investigation, but their arguments focused more on the need for closure for the family of slain Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. Two guns identified by the Fast and Furious tracking operation were found near his body after a shootout in Arizona.
Democrats promised closure as well, but said a less-partisan Republican investigation was the only way to get it.
Adding to the emotion of the day, the family of the slain agent issued a statement backing the Republicans.
"The Terry family takes no pleasure in the contempt vote against Attorney General Eric Holder. Such a vote should not have been necessary. The Justice Department should have released the documents related to Fast and Furious months ago," the statement said.
The contempt votes happened on the day that Obama's health care law survived in the Supreme Court, prompting some Democrats to speculate that the votes were scheduled to be overwhelmed by news stories about the ruling.
About five hours after the court ruled, with news sites flooded with information about the health care ruling, the House voted 255-67 to declare Holder in criminal contempt.
A second vote of 258-95 held Holder in civil contempt and authorized the House to file a lawsuit.
In past cases, courts have been reluctant to settle disputes between the executive and legislative branches of government.
The issue became more complicated when Obama invoked a broad form of executive privilege, a legal doctrine designed to keep private certain communications of executive branch agencies.
Issa's committee will consult with the House counsel's office about a court challenge to the administration's decision not to cooperate, spokesman Frederick Hill said.
The documents were written after Fast and Furious was shut down. The subpoena covered a 10-month period from February 2011, as the Justice Department expressed growing concern that the Fast and Furious operation had employed a risky investigative tactic known as "gun-walking." In early December 2011, the department finally acknowledged that the initial denial of gun-walking was in error.
Republicans said the contempt citations were necessary because Holder refused to hand over documents that could explain why the Obama administration took 10 months to acknowledge the gun-walking.
In Fast and Furious, ATF agents abandoned the agency's usual practice of intercepting all weapons they believed to be illicitly purchased, often as soon as they were taken out of gun shops. Instead, the goal of the tactic known as "gun-walking" was to track such weapons to high-level arms traffickers, who had long eluded prosecution, and to dismantle their networks.
Gun-walking long has been barred by Justice Department policy, but federal agents in Arizona experimented with it in at least two investigations during the George W. Bush administration before Operation Fast and Furious. These experiments came as the department was under widespread criticism that the old policy of arresting every suspected low-level "straw purchaser" was failing to stop tens of thousands of guns from reaching Mexico, more than 68,000 in the last five years. A straw purchaser conceals that he is buying guns for others.
Fast and Furious identified more than 2,000 weapons suspected of being illicitly purchased. But agents lost track of many of the guns. Some 1,400 of them have yet to be recovered. -- (AP)
For many, Republicans in the U.S. House were like Grinches stealing their Christmas after lawmakers stalled legislation that would increase a payroll tax cut already in place and extend unemployment benefits.
“I’m going to enjoy my holidays,” said Dane Osborne, standing in the pulpit at Arch Street Methodist Church, surrounding by the trappings of Christmas. “But, not like I’m accustomed to.”
The 60 year-old was laid off in January from a job he’d held at Home Depot for almost 18 years.
“They cut 7,000 of us in one shot,” he said, with a shake of his head. “And, I’ve been trying to find employment ever since then.”
Osborne spoke at a rally to urge the House to extend unemployment benefits and approve an increase in the payroll tax cuts proposed by President Barack Obama and recently approved by the Senate. This week the House shot down the proposal.
The unemployment rate stands at 8.6 percent and Osborne is among an estimated 15 million unemployed Americans who is waiting to see whether the House will cut off benefits.
“I’m having difficulties like a whole lot of Americans and whole lot of Pennsylvanians,” said Osborne.
Republicans in the House on Tuesday, in a 229-193 vote, scuttled a bipartisan Senate bill that would have extended those benefits for two months while legislators worked out a long-term bill. Without an extension, 2 million people could lose their benefits by February, including 75,000 Pennsylvanians.
“Unemployment helps you get by, but it doesn’t pay all your bills,” said Osborne, noting that the checks are smaller than many suppose. “I hope something happens to change the direction we’re going in, so we can start to live like Americans again.”
The average unemployment check is $295 a week.
Rather than pass the two-month extension, House Republicans have rallied around a plan that would have extended the payroll tax cut for one year. But that version also contained spending cuts opposed by Democrats and tighter rules for jobless benefits.
The two-month extension passed by the Senate before its holiday recess was a compromise intended to give lawmakers a little more breathing room. With the Senate in recess its unclear what if anything will happen.
If some sort of legislation isn’t passed by Jan. 1, payroll taxes will go up by almost $20 a week for a worker making a $50,000 salary. In addition, doctors would bear big cuts in Medicare payments.
We want the government to do whatever is necessary to extend these benefits - and we want jobs,” said Osborne. “We really need jobs to make a difference.”
The rally – which also served as a toy giveaway – drew about 100 people - including local politicians, labor leaders and advocates for the unemployed. It also brought out many children who will likely face a bleak Christmas as their parents struggle financially.
The anger in the room was evident.
“They should be fired,” thundered Pat Eiding, president of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO. “Let them collect unemployment.”
He predicted that if Republicans continued their political brinksmanship many would be turned out of office in the next election.
“I would normally apologize for my anger in a place of worship,” Eiding said. “But I think it’s time for us to get angry. It’s time for us to rise up and tell them we’re not going to take this anymore.”
Then in a reference to House Speaker John Boehner and a recent quote that accused the Senate of kicking the can down the road with their temporary bill, Eiding added: “The day will come when we will be kicking ‘Bonehead’ down the street and not a can.”
On Thursday, it appeared that the standoff could easily drag on until the end of the year.
In addition to the highly publicized duel over payroll taxes and benefits, Medicare announced this week that, as it has in the past when doctors’ reimbursements have been cut through congressional inaction, it would withhold physicians’ payments for two weeks in January to avoid passing on a 27 percent cut in Medicare fees.
The time had come, said John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, for citizens to take action and force the House to act.
“Let’s see if we can wake up the Congress of this country,” he said.
WASHINGTON — An economic calamity looming, President Barack Obama on Friday signaled willingness to compromise with Republicans, declaring he was not "wedded to every detail" of his tax-and-spending approach to prevent deep and widespread pain in the new year. But he insisted his re-election gave him a mandate to raise taxes on wealthier Americans.
"The majority of Americans agree with my approach," said Obama, brimming with apparent confidence in his first White House statement since securing a second term.
Trouble is, the Republicans who run the House plainly do not agree with his plans. Speaker John Boehner insisted that raising tax rates as Obama wants "will destroy jobs in America."
So began the "fiscal cliff" political maneuvering that will determine which elected power center — the White House or the House — bends more on its promises to voters. The outcome will affect tens of millions of Americans, given that the tax hikes and budgets cuts set to kick in Jan. 1 could spike unemployment and bring on a new recession.
An exhausting presidential race barely history, Washington was back quickly to governing on deadline, with agreement on a crucial goal but divisions on how to get there. The campaign is over, but another has just begun.
The White House quickly turned Obama's comments into an appeal for public support, shipping around a video by email and telling Americans that "this debate can either stay trapped in Washington or you can make sure your friends and neighbors participate."
Obama invited the top four leaders of Congress to the White House next week for talks, right before he departs on a trip to Asia.
In laying their negotiating markers, all sides sought to leave themselves wiggle room.
"I don't want to box myself in. I don't want to box anybody else in," Boehner said at the Capitol.
Outside all the new the talk of openness, the same hard lines seemed in place.
Obama never expressly said that tax rates on top earners must return to the higher levels of the Bill Clinton era, leading to speculation that he was willing to soften the core position of his re-election campaign to get a grand debt deal with Republicans. "I'm not wedded to every detail of my plan. I'm open to compromise," he said.
But his spokesman, Jay Carney, seemed to slam that door. He said Obama would veto any extension Congress might approve of tax cuts on incomes above $250,000.
Obama's remarks were choreographed so that a diverse-looking group of Americans stood behind him and dozens more were invited to pack the East Room. In the weeks ahead, he plans to pull in the public as a way to pressure Congress.
"I am not going to ask students and seniors and middle class families to pay down the entire deficit while people like me, making over $250,000, aren't asked to pay a dime more in taxes. I'm not going to do that," said Obama.
He said voters plainly agreed with his approach that both tax hikes and spending cuts are needed to cut the debt.
"Our job now is to get a majority in Congress to reflect the will of the American people," Obama said.
About 60 percent of voters said in exit polls Tuesday that taxes should increase, either for everyone or those making over $250,000. Left unsaid by Obama was that even more voters opposed raising taxes to help cut the deficit.
The scheduled year-end changes, widely characterized as a dangerous "fiscal cliff," include a series of expiring tax cuts that were approved in the George W. Bush administration. The other half of the problem is a set of punitive across-the-board spending cuts, looming only because partisan panel of lawmakers failed to reach a debt deal.
Put together, they could mean the loss of roughly 3 million jobs.
Since the election, Boehner and Obama have both responded to the reality that they need each other.
Compromise has become mandatory if the two leaders are to avoid economic harm and the wrath of a public sick of government dysfunction.
Obama says he is willing to talk about changes to Medicare and Medicaid, earning him the ire of the left. Boehner says he will accept raising tax revenue and not just slashing spending, although he insists it must be done by reworking the tax code, not raising rates. The framework, at least, is there for a broad deal on taxes.
Yet the top Democrat and Republican in the nation are trying to put the squeeze on each other as the public waits for answers.
"This is his opportunity to lead," Boehner said of Obama, not long before the president said: "All we need is action from the House."
Obama said the uncertainty now spooking investors and employers will be shrunk if Congress extends — quickly — the tax cuts for all those except the most-well off.
The Senate has passed such a bill. The House showed no interest on Friday in Obama's idea.
Obama and Republicans have tangled over the Bush tax cuts for years. The president gave in to Republican demands to extend the cuts across the board in 2010, but he ran for re-election on a pledge to allow the rates to increase on families making more than $250,000 a year.
Also lurking is the expiration of the nation's debt limit in the coming weeks. The last fight on that nearly led the United States to default on its bills.
When asked if he would try to use that issue as leverage, Boehner said it must be addressed "sooner rather than later."
The national debt now stands above $16 trillion. The government borrowed about 31 cents of every dollar it spent in 2012. -- (AP)
There are endless reasons explaining the dysfunction of Congress these days. Theories abound, accusations fly across the airwaves, and the circular firing squads are hastily rearming themselves.
“The problem is [House Speaker] Boehner’s unruly children over on the Hill who he has no control over,” was David Axelrod’s take on it during a segment on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, President Obama’s political mastermind attempting to weave it into one digestible narrative. “They’re having a food fight at every caucus.”
In the wake of legislative debacles from the fiscal cliff to Superstorm Sandy relief, a number of observers are searching for why John Boehner’s House resembles reality television. But the road to chaos had stops along the way, and clues providing insight into the dark cloud of madness engulfing Capitol Hill.
“It will get uglier before it gets worse. Worse before it gets much worse than that. Sorry – nothing better and no end in sight,” jokes a lobbyist and former Congressional aide speaking anonymously.
A closer look at voting patterns, however, suggests that regional splits are becoming much more pronounced and obvious on a number of critical issues. Republicans who voted against the fiscal cliff deal and the $60.5 billion Superstorm Sandy relief package are primarily from rural and exurban states and Congressional districts in the South, West and Midwest. Some observers see a widening geographical gulf that is not only adding a sharper edge to the partisan tone on Capitol Hill, but is also explaining complex intra-party splits within each caucus.
While the majority of U.S. residents, 85 percent, are concentrated in urban and suburban metropolitan areas, many grow frustrated that lawmakers representing the smaller 15 percent are calling the shots.
The Sandy relief package, seeking to quickly funnel billions of dollars of needed aid to struggling New York and New Jersey, is a case in point. More than six percent of the entire U.S. population is centered in the New York and Northeastern Jersey corridor, the capitalist core of the country, and the largest financial center on the planet. Yet, despite the economic blow to the region from Sandy, Republicans in the House and Senate effectively stalled what would have typically sailed through both chambers.
In both the fiscal cliff and Sandy relief debates, fiscal conservatives cited the growing $16.5 trillion federal deficit as the main reason for pushback. Weeks earlier, during the pre-holiday lame duck session, Republican senators were attempting to cut the $60.4 billion figure by half. Sources on and off the Hill told The Tribune that some Republicans, still rankling from Governor Chris Christie’s, R-N.J., very public embrace of President Obama, were quietly seeking political payback for what they saw as a betrayal.
But, the geographical splits suggest a brewing legislative Civil War in Congress based on state lines and regions. Of the 32 senators who voted against the Sandy relief package, the vast majority were from traditionally rural or exurban states. Nearly half, 44 percent, hailed from Southern states like Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Texas. Others were from Western states — over 20 percent — like Arizona, Utah, Wyoming and South Dakota.
Only two, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., were from the Northeast. Many observers were scratching their heads over Toomey’s vote, considering the proximity of Sandy to his state — as well as the deep emotional and economic ties between New Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania. But others point to a Toomey strategy that attempts to stifle any primary challenges from his hard right, with much emphasis placed on the western and very conservative side of the Keystone State.
And while most of the GOP House leadership rallied behind Boehner to support the controversial fiscal cliff deal, it didn’t go unnoticed that his No. 2 House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., — also from a Southern state and rural district — voted against the deal. Of the 151 House Republicans who voted against the measure, the vast majority were from Southern, Midwestern and Western states. Entire GOP delegations from states such as Colorado, Georgia and South Carolina (to name a few) were voting against the fiscal cliff legislation.
“There has been no shortage of time to forge a solution to America’s fiscal crisis, but a lack of courage and will,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., a staunch conservative still feeling burned by Boehner after being removed from both the House Agricultural and Budget Committees. “The so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ is a Washington-made problem — the result of years of last-minute deals designed to avoid real solutions. But, eventually Washington must face the fiscal abyss left in the wake of too much spending, too much borrowing, and too much government.”
Huelskamp was also one of twelve Republican Members who voted against the re-election of Boehner as House Speaker last week. That tense roll call vote also showed geographic splits, with half of that dozen hailing from southern states.
Many experts contend that the highly partisan mood of House Republicans is due to the impact of redistricting after the 2010 Census. After gaining six of the eight state houses and governorships in states where population gains offered an opportunity for enhanced Congressional representation, the GOP was able to draw districts protecting their incumbents.
“Having winner-take-all elections and a narrow choice between two polarized parties has led to an unsustainable combination of circumstances,” says Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy.
“There are very few districts where partisan change is possible. There is regional dominance by one party, including half of House Republicans from the former Confederacy. And leaders are more fearful of challenges from their base than the country at large.”
Hyper-partisan gerrymandering resulted in the creation of very heavily conservative and deeply “red” Congressional districts that did not vote for Obama. Only 15 House Republicans, out of 234 elected, come from districts where President Obama won a majority of voters.
“Moving to a more proportional system using multi-seat districts may be the best — or even the only — way of breaking this trend and making space for problem-solvers rather than ideologues,” argues Richie.
On the Senate side, which is dictated by statewide elections, the picture is much clearer. In 2014, 14 Republican senators are up for re-election and the president won only one of those states: Maine. Half those seats are in Southern states.
Democrats cheer, Republicans frown at State of the Union
Reaction to President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union speech of his second term broke down, predictably, along party lines – Democrats praised the president while Republicans criticized.
Two local Democrats applauded Obama’s speech while urging Republicans get behind the president as he opens his second term.
“At the beginning of President Obama’s second term, he has laid out a forward-looking agenda for America. The Congress should step up and be a full partner in moving our nation forward,” said U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, in a slight jab at his Republican colleagues.
Obama gave the first speech of his second term on Tuesday night in front of a joint session of Congress, laying out his plans for his next four years in office. It included a call to reform gun laws, education reform and raising the nation’s minimum wage.
In this week’s speech, the president presented his proposals as a way to boost the middle class, an echo of the just-finished campaign that often centered on the differences between the president and his opponent Mitt Romney, who most voters came to see a voice for the wealthy.
“It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth – a rising, thriving middle class,” the president said. “It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.”
Speaker of the House John Boehner issued a statement following the speech saying the policies of Obama’s first term have failed and that he heard nothing that gave him hope for the president’s second term.
“Four years after the president first addressed a joint session of Congress, Americans are still asking, ‘Where are the jobs?’ He offered them little more than more of the same ‘stimulus’ policies that have failed to fix our economy and put Americans back to work,” Boehner said. “We cannot grow the middle class and foster job creation by growing government and raising taxes.”
Obama’s first term was tempered by a deeply divided and recalcitrant Congress, which, led by Republicans, attempted to block many of the president’s major initiatives – though the stimulus bill and health care reform did pass.
As his second term began, House Republicans showed little inclination to compromise. The weeks following the election were dominated by bickering over the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling.
Even in the Senate, which has a Democratic majority, Republicans have held up several of the president’s cabinet nominations and other selections for administration posts including the new Consumer Protection Agency.
Fattah, who has just been chosen to lead the congressional Black caucus’s charitable foundation and serve on the Appropriation Committee’s subcommittee of veterans’ affairs, said Obama “has outlined a bold agenda to create jobs, strengthen the middle class, and support our veterans, men and women in uniform, and their families” for this second term.
He was not alone in praising the president while subtly highlighting what many see as Republican unwillingness to work with the administration.
Rep. Allyson Schwartz praised Obama for his “bold vision” and added that it was now up to Congress to put petty differences aside and work for the good of the country.
“Congress must take action to meet our looming fiscal deadlines and provide certainty and stability for our families and businesses,” she said. “This means not only demanding fiscal discipline in both spending and tax policy that strengthens the middle class, but also providing new revenue to make the right investments for a growing economy.”
Even the audience to Obama’s speech was divided, with more Democrats tuning in than Republicans, found a CNN poll. The same poll found that Obama’s speech did have an impact on its audience.
The poll found that 77 percent of viewers had a “somewhat or very positive” reaction to the president’s speech. That compared to 22 percent who had a “negative” response. CNN reported that more Democrats than Republicans watched the speech – 44 percent of the audience was Democrats compared to 17 percent Republicans. A majority of voters also said the president’s policies would put the country on the right track; 71 percent supported Obama’s policies a jump from 65 percent prior to the speech.