Barack Obama

Historically Significant Leaders Guide Senate, House

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already cemented their congressional legacies. Now those legacies may be tested as they face another deadline to forge a border security compromise that can pass Congress and President Trump will accept, avoiding another potential government shutdown.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already cemented their congressional legacies. Now those legacies may be tested as they face another deadline to forge a border security compromise that can pass Congress and President Trump will accept, avoiding another potential government shutdown.

We may be witnessing historically significant congressional leaders in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. What they do next in response to continuing demands by President Trump to fund his controversial border wall may affect their legacies.

History-making by McConnell, the Republican, and Pelosi, the Democrat, is as different as night-and-day and as the Senate and the House. Pelosi is known for muscling major legislation on health care and consumer protection through Congress. McConnell’s legacy is laying the groundwork for a GOP agenda outside Congress in the scores of conservative judges he has ushered through the Senate. 

The New York Times Magazine featured McConnell over the weekend, noting he recognized the parliamentary obstacles in the Senate to passing any kind of major legislation, so he turned his focus on federal judgeships. He has steered through two new Supreme Court justices and 83 lower-court judges. And he famously blocked the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland during President Obama’s last year in office.

“When Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court on October 6, after McConnell played a key role in ushering him through a month of arguments over and investigations into allegations of sexual assault, the scope of the majority leader’s influence on American governance snapped into focus.”

A similar epiphany occurred when Pelosi stared down Trump over his demand for funding for his border wall that led to a record-shattering five-week partial federal government shutdown. Pelosi was hailed by supporters and critics alike as the most powerful female elected official in America.

McConnell is following in the tracks of legendary Senate majority leaders such as Lyndon Johnson, who passed the first modern-day civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960 and Mike Mansfield, the longest-serving majority leader who steered through the more famous Voting Rights and Civil Rights legislation, as well creation of Medicare and Medicaid as part of Johnson’s Great Society.

While McConnell admires Mansfield, NYT magazine says, “McConnell is the first majority leader whose career has been built on the assumption that the Senate could produce the great legislative works of his predecessors is a thing of the past.” 

He is partially responsible for his own view. As minority leader and then majority leader during the Obama presidency, McConnell was a fortress of obstruction. Or as NYT Magazine described it, “He fashioned himself as the essential impediment to Obama’s vision of a sequel to the Great Society, using tactics that were once the province of Senate factions as a strategic blueprint for the entire Republican caucus.” 

McConnell admits to being an obstructionist. “Far be it from me to complain about obstruction when I’ve been involved in it,” he said. McConnell justifies his obstruction by adding, “There was a point to it.”

His obstruction stretched beyond Obama-backed legislation to include blocking a pre-2016 election warning about Russian interference. Armed with US intelligence about Russian meddling, Obama said he would only release the information if all four of the Senate and House caucus leaders agreed to avoid any appearance of politicizing the intelligence data. House Speaker Paul Ryan, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed. McConnell said no. 

McConnell may seem an unlikely obstructionist-in-chief. Not especially photogenic or charismatic, McConnell has used “this blankness to his advantage, made it a carrier for designs greater than himself.” NYT Magazine reports McConnell was willing to take positions viewed as politically distasteful such as opposing campaign finance reform with a “shrugging willingness to play a villain when a villain was required.”

Pelosi is a more electric figure. She is the first woman elected House Speaker, the first woman to lead a party in Congress and the first Speaker to lose, then win back the position since Sam Rayburn in 1955. Her leadership in the 2018 midterm election resulted in a record-setting number of women winning election to Congress. All that cements her legacy as a historical congressional figure.

She is best known – and most often demonized – by her leadership in passing the Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote. A Republican congressional observed her effort “as masterful a piece of legislating as I have ever seen.”

Her relentless drive to push a progressive agenda, which included a climate change bill, gets part of the blame for the GOP congressional takeover in the 2010 midterm election. 

Pelosi became Speaker in 2007 toward the end of President George W. Bush’s second term and growing public frustration with the Iraq war, which she opposed, and deepening economic recession. In the face of potential economic collapse, Pelosi mustered the needed votes for a Wall Street bailout plan in the House. 

Her steadfast opposition has posed an insurmountable obstacle, at least so far, to Trump’s border wall. Her hardball tactic of denying Trump a congressional stage during the prolonged government shutdown underscored her image as a “force of nature.” Or as Pelosi herself observed about Trump that he may unfamiliar dealing with “women in power.” [After the shutdown ended, Pelosi extended an invitation to Trump to give his State of the Union speech on February 5.]

Congress faces a three-week deadline to resolve the border security issue. Trump has resumed his demand for $5.7 for the border wall, threatening to block any legislation without it and declaring a national emergency. 

There is a bipartisan consensus in the congressional shadows that would agree to $5.7 billion or more for border technology, additional border agents, modernized ports of entry and increased Coast Guard drug interdictions. A sliver of money might even be included for physical barriers where appropriate, but not the full-fledged border wall Trump wants. 

That presages another showdown and potential shutdown, even though the one that just ended cost the nation an estimated $11 billion in lost economic activity and $3 billion in federal revenue, not to mention stress and loss of morale for federal workers who went without pay for a month. 

The odds in the showdown may be in favor of Pelosi whose approval rate has soared while Trump’s have sagged.

This time around, the fate of border security and heading off another punishing government shutdown may revolve around the historically significant figures who lead the Senate and the House. It could boil down to a battle between a skilled obstructionist and an equally skilled legislative tactician with their legacies on the line. Or, it could blossom improbably into a bicameral, bipartisan push-back for a troubled President. That certainly would be history-making for both.

 

A ‘Fringe Idea’ to Apply Term Limits to the Supreme Court

A ‘new’ debate is emerging on reforming the Supreme Court, including imposing term limits on justices. What has been a fringe issue may be moving into the mainstream and even the 2020 presidential race. Debating the size and composition of the Court could be a refreshing dip into a rich part of American history that has occurred when the nation was founded, grappled with nationhood, recovered from civil war and addressed the ravages of the Great Depression.

A ‘new’ debate is emerging on reforming the Supreme Court, including imposing term limits on justices. What has been a fringe issue may be moving into the mainstream and even the 2020 presidential race. Debating the size and composition of the Court could be a refreshing dip into a rich part of American history that has occurred when the nation was founded, grappled with nationhood, recovered from civil war and addressed the ravages of the Great Depression.

While the Capitol is buzzing with news about averting a government shutdown, criminal justice reform and a resolution to exit the Yemeni civil war, a new debate is quietly entering the stage that could radically change the US Supreme Court.

With two new conservative justices appointed by President Trump sitting on the high court, liberals are talking about ideas to apply term limits to justices, restrict when presidents can appoint new justices and add more justices to the court. Fivethirtyeight calls the conversation a “fringe idea” that is gaining mainstream attention.

As Fivethirtyeight recalls, court-packing isn’t new or novel. The Supreme Court’s size was shrunk by outgoing Federalists from six to five to prevent incoming President Thomas Jefferson from making an early appointment. Republicans quickly returned the Court to its original size and later added a seventh justice so another Republican could be named.

The Court was increased to nine justices to give President Andrew Jackson two additional seats to fill as part of his battle to end the national bank. Following President Lincoln’s assassination, a Republican Congress reduced the Court to seven to deny his successor, Democrat Andrew Johnson, any nominations that could interfere with their reconstruction plans. Franklin Roosevelt tried court-packing to remove judicial obstacles to his New Deal, but his transparent objective sank his attempt.   

The impetus for the latest spasm of interest in Supreme Court “reform” was the decision by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to deny a hearing or confirmation vote for President Obama nominee Merrick Garland in 2016. The spectacle surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings earlier this year didn’t squelch interest in reforms.

“The whole idea was born out of bleakness,” says David Faris who wrote “It’s Time to Fight Dirty,” which Fivethirtyeight describes as a “highbrow manual” to achieve institutional change. His book includes a chapter on changing the trajectory of the Supreme Court, with ideas Faris credits to Fix the Court, a group that says it is dedicated “to open up the most powerful, least accountable part of government.”

One of the group’s main ideas is to end lifetime appointments for Supreme Court justices and impose 18-year term limits. It says that idea was originally suggested by none other than current Chief Justice John Roberts, who has served on the court since 2005.

“To paraphrase a John Roberts' 1983 memo, term limits would restore an important check on the most powerful, least accountable branch of American government, would increase the rotation of justices serving and would broaden the pool of potential nominees – all positive outcomes no matter where you stand politically.” He wrote the memo while working as associate counsel to White House counsel Fred Fielding during the Reagan administration.

According to Fivethirtyeight, the only elected official to express vocal support for Supreme Court justice term limits is freshman California Congressman Ro Khanna, who took his law degree from Yale University, has taught law and co-authored an amicus brief to the Supreme Court to allow race discrimination suits under the Fair Housing Act. Khanna, who worked in the Obama administration, doubts his former boss would favor the idea, but he thinks American voters might. “Americans love term limits,” he says.

For the idea to have any political legs, Khanna explains, it must be bipartisan. He and others who are intrigued by the idea of court reforms expect the issue to rise up in the 2020 presidential election as part of a broader debate over rehabilitating American democracy.

“Every presidential candidate should talk about their relationship to the Supreme Court, what they would do to reform the court, if anything, how they would go about selecting justices, and what they would do if there was a constitutional crisis,” Khanna told Fivethirtyeight. Polling has shown that candidate Donald Trump’s promises to appoint conservative justices was a factor in securing critical support, including from evangelical religious groups.

One of the other ideas being tossed around is limiting Supreme Court nominations to the first and third year of a presidential term, an idea ironically spawned by McConnell’s defense of ignoring Garland’s nomination in Obama’s final year in office. It also has been suggested to increase the size of the Supreme Court from nine to 11 or 13 justices – “depending on how many justices Trump winds up appointing.”

Term limits can cut both ways. Political conservatives might be thrilled to see Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who joined the Court in 1993 and the subject of a new film, gone. Political liberals would feel likewise about Justice Clarence Thomas, who took his seat in 1991 following a contentious confirmation hearing that featured Anita Hill and charges of sexual harassment.

A current-day debate over the Supreme Court would be like a refreshing dip into American history. The reforms would be newly expressed, but bound to the nation’s ever-evolving democracy over issues such as judicial review, racial discrimination and gender equality.

 

How to Make an Impossible Presidency Bearable and Successful

John Dickerson of CBS News wrote the cover story for The Atlantic that explores whether the modern US presidency is too big for any individual leader. There aren’t many answers for how to shrink the job or enlarge the men and women who occupy the White House.

John Dickerson of CBS News wrote the cover story for The Atlantic that explores whether the modern US presidency is too big for any individual leader. There aren’t many answers for how to shrink the job or enlarge the men and women who occupy the White House.

John Dickerson isn’t the first or last to wonder in print whether the US presidency has outgrown a single occupant.

In the cover article for the latest edition of The Atlantic, Dickerson contrasts today’s outsized view of the US presidency with the James Polk era, when the wife of the 11th President of the United States insisted bands played “Hail to the Chief” when he entered a room – so people would recognize him.

Dickerson, who is now part of the CBS Morning News team, says the problems President Donald Trump seems ill-equipped to deal with in the Oval Office may be a reflection of the growing difficulty of one man – or one woman – to represent the best interests of 327 million citizens while managing 2 million employees in the federal government (not counting US military personnel).

Ivana Trump, one of the ex-wives of President Trump, confirms Dickerson’s thesis. She says Trump loves his personal freedom and feels trapped by all the demands on the President, including reading mounds of material about virtually every subject and corner of the world. Trump didn’t even know his namesake son was being divorced until his ex-wife told him during one of their monthly calls.

The demands on modern Presidents have led others to question the human capacity of a single person to fill the job. Jeremi Suri’s “The Impossible Presidency” traces how the presidency has advanced from George Washington, who was assumed above pedestrian politics, to today when Presidents must be commander-in-chief, world leader and a political wunderkind. The presidency was a radical idea hatched by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to be an “impartial, fair, forward-looking and unifying” force to guide the nation as a “model of virtuous behavior.” If anyone like that exists today, he or she probably couldn’t get elected as dog catcher, let alone President of the United States.

The talents required for a President are sprawling. They must be the war chief, preside over national sorrow and divine how to manage the economy, pretty much full-time on television – and now Twitter. Every misstep is magnified. Nothing is off-limits. Every problem sooner or later finds itself under the porte-cochére of the White House.

It is an interesting historical footnote that Washington never slept a night in the White House, John Adams was the first president to occupy the White House while it still was under construction. His impressions were less than superlative. Many modern presidents have referred to the White House as a prison. Trump compared it to a third-rate hotel. It would seem the digs don’t detonate the sparks of ambition to become President.

Which raises the question, why do people run for President? They tell supporters they want to make a difference, but they must realize the odds are stacked against them, especially when a President from one party serves with a Congress controlled by the other party. The founding fathers saw the wisdom of separation of powers, but they probably didn’t anticipate as much friction in the wheels of government as we witness today.

Dickerson lays much of the blame for dysfunction at the collective hands of the presidency. Since Andrew Jackson, American Presidents have become more powerful, more visible and more outgunned. They command an army that increasingly has become a covert operation. They appear on television in the Oval Office and make promises, which they often are unable to keep. They oversee a sprawling administration they can hardly contemplate, let alone manage. For the record, Jackson was an activist President trying to shrink the federal government, especially the National Bank.

If the problem with the presidency is obvious, solutions are opaque. Some have called for the United States to adopt a system closer to Britain’s parliamentary system, with a prime minister chosen by the controlling party. Others have emphasized the importance of bringing a competent team to Washington, DC to manage the levers of power. Still others have said government should be run more like a business.

The presidency is unlikely to morph into a prime minister that must seek approval, symbolic or otherwise, from the sovereign. Presidential teams are increasingly hard to assemble and keep in place for even a single term. The skills it takes to succeed in business may not be synonymous with what it takes to lead the nation. A CEO can give orders; a President has to find delicate balances on issues such as nuclear weapons that never reach the desk of a business executive.

In his book, Suri said Franklin Roosevelt was able in relative leisure to conduct war after Pearl Harbor. “Twenty years later, even as John F. Kennedy was confronting nuclear Armageddon in the form of the Cuban missile crisis, he was struggling to find time to deliberate with his closest advisers. His calendar was packed. The problem: a massive expansion of presidential power and responsibility.”

Dickerson concurs. He recalls how in 1938 some 100 demonstrators dressed up as Paul Revere and carried signs saying American didn’t want a dictator, a response to the first major reorganization of the executive branch since 1787. The reorganization was the result of a study commissioned by Roosevelt who basically said, “I need help.”

Since then, the world of Presidents has gotten a lot more intense. Nowadays, Presidents are held responsible for federal agents unable to provide emergency housing for hurricane victims. Maybe Harry Truman’s “The buck stops here” sign needs some editing.

If skeptics need evidence, Dickerson said they should scan the 300 photos of Barack Obama taken by White House photographer Pete Souza that shows the President who hosts endless meetings, comforts wounded soldiers, negotiates with world leaders and high-fives kids in Halloween costumes.

“The presidential brain must handle a wider variety of acute experiences than perhaps any other brain on the planet,” Dickerson writes. “Meanwhile, the President lives in a most peculiar unreality. His picture is on almost every wall of his workplace. The other walls contain paintings of the men who achieved greatness in his job, as well as those who muddled through. It’s like taking a test with your competition’s scores posted around you.”

His best advice for a future successful President: Empower his or her Cabinet. Study up to hit the road running. Concentrate on a few well-chosen goals. Force Congress to do its job. Claim some personal down time. Those steps won’t make the presidency less challenging, but it might help a future officeholder do the job in ways that transcend partisanship.

 

Restoring Cuban Restrictions Would Hurt Northwest Travel, Trade

Obama-era relaxation of travel restrictions to Cuba has been greeted with a flood of tourists to Havana, including on flights from the Northwest on Seattle-based Alaska Airlines. Restoring trade and travel restrictions could hurt tourism and maybe blunt emerging markets in Cuba for Northwest speciality agricultural products such as hazelnuts, wine and craft beer.

Obama-era relaxation of travel restrictions to Cuba has been greeted with a flood of tourists to Havana, including on flights from the Northwest on Seattle-based Alaska Airlines. Restoring trade and travel restrictions could hurt tourism and maybe blunt emerging markets in Cuba for Northwest speciality agricultural products such as hazelnuts, wine and craft beer.

President Trump heads to Miami later this week to announce he is restoring restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba. The move will please anti-Castro Cuban emigres who live in South Florida, but what does it mean for everybody else, including people who live in Washington and Oregon? Apparently a lot more than Cuban cigars and rum.

First off, reversing Obama-era relaxation of Cuban travel and trade restrictions doesn’t appear to be broadly popular throughout the country. Morning Consult, a DC-based non-partisan survey research firm, released fresh public opinion polling results this week showing 65 percent of American voters – and six in 10 Republican voters – favor continuing engagement with Cuba.

A group called Engage Cuba, which commissioned the poll, also released a report earlier this month that claims restoring some or all pre-Obama Cuban trade and travel restrictions could cost the US economy $6.6 billion and affect more than 12,000 American jobs. It also could make it harder for Cuban-Americans to visit relatives in Cuba

Last year, Miguel Fraga, first secretary of the Embassy of Cuba, visited Seattle and said loosened restrictions would make it easier for Americans to visit Cuba. In step with what has been a sharp rise in US tourism in Cuba, Seattle-based Alaska Airlines was among seven US air carriers to apply for rights to fly to Havana. The airline made its inaugural flight – the first from the West Coast – on January 5 starting in Seattle and flying to Havana from Los Angeles. Alaska also has a connecting flight out of Portland.

Earlier this year, Bruce Pokarney of the Oregon Department of Agriculture pointed to Cuba as a potential new market for Oregon specialty products such as hazelnuts, wine, craft beer, blueberries, apples pears, cherries and beef. The Salem Statesman Journal pointed out up to 80 percent of the food consumed by Cubans is imported. Before trade restrictions were relaxed by President Obama, the United States were already the leading agricultural products exporter to Cuba, with $300 million in exports in 2014 and $658 million in 2008.

The European Union and Canada are the largest exporters of wheat to Cuba. The United States has not shipped any wheat to Cuba since 2011, according to the Statesman-Journal.

“Obviously our top market is Asia,” Pokarney told the Statesman-Journal. “But we are always open to looking at new markets. It’s a situation where we want to maintain existing markets and find new ones.”

While foreign policy experts note Cuba has not pardoned political prisoners, permitted labor unions or condoned political activities, trade experts contend the 50-year-old US trade embargo of Cuba has proven ineffective in influencing Cuba’s human rights policies. Trade experts also say small American businesses are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of more open trade with Cuba, which could boost exports in specialty products by more than $1 billion per year.

The rationale for maintaining or restoring a trade embargo and travel restrictions has more to do with politics, since Cuba long ago ceased to be a national security risk to the United States. A bipartisan majority of Americans seem to think it is a good idea to turn the page and re-engage with a nearby Caribbean neighbor. From the looks of Facebook posts of Washingtonians and Oregonians who have taken selfies while in Havana, it seems like the Northwest shares that view – and could share in some of the economic rewards of expanding engagement.
 

New African American Smithsonian Showcases Horror and Beauty

The three-tiered National Museum of African American History and Culture opens this weekend in the shadow of the Washington Monument and with a festival of Free Sounds. (Photo Credit: The New York Times)

The three-tiered National Museum of African American History and Culture opens this weekend in the shadow of the Washington Monument and with a festival of Free Sounds. (Photo Credit: The New York Times)

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens Saturday, just before the first presidential debate in a contest in which charges of racial bigotry have been regularly tried.

President Barack Obama, America’s first black president, has openly encouraged GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump to visit the new Smithsonian museum before the November 8 election.

This pair of shackles is one of many relics of slavery, America's darkest chapter, on display inside the museum.

This pair of shackles is one of many relics of slavery, America's darkest chapter, on display inside the museum.

Situated perhaps symbolically on the last available museum site on the National Mall in the shadow of the Washington Monument, the new museum traces the journey of a slice of America’s people who arrived in chains, suffered through segregation and still experience discrimination in the workplace and on the streets.

As the Museum celebrates its opening with a three-day Freedom Sounds Festival, protests continue in Charlotte and Tulsa over controversial police shootings of black men. Congress is hung up on a spending bill to keep the federal government running, in part because of a refusal to provide aid to Flint, Michigan, water users and Louisiana flood victims.

Backers were forced to raise private funds to build the museum because of congressional opposition. Senator Jesse Helms said if Congress funded a museum recognizing African Americans, other groups would demand equal treatment. Congress finally authorized the museum 13 years ago.

The building makes its own statement with a black-brown metal façade that contrasts sharply with the white marble sister Smithsonian museums surrounding it. The museum’s tiered design draws inspiration from African architecture, and the façade pays homage to the skill of black freemen metalsmiths in the Deep South. Architect David Adjaye, who designed the museum, said the architecture intentionally “speaks another language.

Chuck Berry's shiny red Cadillac is one of many thousands of African American artifacts on display in the new museum. 

Chuck Berry's shiny red Cadillac is one of many thousands of African American artifacts on display in the new museum. 

The exhibits and 36,000 displayed artifacts center on the life of black Americans from tiny plantation cabins and punishing neck chains to pioneering jazz musicians and Chuck Berry’s cherry red Cadillac. However, exhibit designers sought to make the museum appeal to a wider audience by showing how African American culture has become embedded in all American culture.

“It explores what it means to be an American and share how American values like resiliency, optimism and spirituality are reflected in African American history and culture,” the museum’s website declares. Designers also attempted to place the arrival of Africans in America as part of an ongoing global migration that at once has increased diversity and underscored human unity.

Michelle Obama’s Breakthrough Speech

(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Tom Williams) First Lady Michelle Obama gave a breakthrough speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention that was beautifully crafted, delivered with polish and resonated far beyond the political battlefield for the presidency.

(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Tom Williams) First Lady Michelle Obama gave a breakthrough speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention that was beautifully crafted, delivered with polish and resonated far beyond the political battlefield for the presidency.

Presidential nominating conventions are runways for politicos to show off their stories and styles. Occasionally, there are breakthrough speeches that launch political careers or send them to new heights.

Ronald Reagan went from revered actor to governor of California and serious presidential timber with his speech to the GOP National Convention in 1964. Barack Obama emerged from the relative obscurity of an Illinois state senator in 2004 to become a U.S. senator and a serious presidential contender in 2008.

Michelle Obama may have scored a breakthrough moment Monday at this year’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Some commentators rank her remarks as among the best convention speeches in decades. While Hillary Clinton’s nomination broke through the penultimate glass ceiling in America, Michelle Obama’s speech broke through to reach the hearts of millions of Americans.

Poynter broke down the First Lady’s speech and credited its strong appeal to Obama’s use of the first person, touching anecdotes and a narrative built around “kids.” These qualities gave her speech universality and made it much more than a stump speech in support of Hillary Clinton.

“That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” she said. “And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”

Obama set the tone in her first paragraph: "You know, it's hard to believe that it has been eight years since I first came to this convention to talk with you about why I thought my husband should be President. Remember how I told you about his character and conviction, his decency and his grace — the traits that we've seen every day that he's served our country in the White House."

She kept her central narrative personal. "I also told you about our daughters — how they are the heart of our hearts, the center of our world. And during our time in the White House, we've had the joy of watching them grow from bubbly little girls into poised young women — a journey that started soon after we arrived in Washington, when they set off for their first day at their new school."

And about the first morning the Obamas were in the White House, she recalled, “I will never forget that winter morning as I watch our girls, just 7 and 10 years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns."

"I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just 7 and 10 years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns."

Perhaps her most memorable line was, “Our motto is, when they go low, we go high” and the most touching anecdote was about the young black boy who wondered whether President Obama’s hair felt like his, prompting the President to bend over and let him find out for himself.

Apart from the technical skill, beautiful writing and polished delivery, Michelle Obama’s speech transported listeners far beyond the current political battlefield into what it means to lead a nation and the stakes of presidential decision-making.

"What I admire most about Hillary is that she never buckles under pressure. She never takes the easy way out. And Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life. And when I think about the kind of President that I want for my girls and all our children, that's what I want. I want someone with the proven strength to persevere." 

Whether Michelle Obama elects to pursue a political career of her own after the Obamas leave the White House, her speech turned fertile groundwork. She will be known for planting a vegetable garden, pushing for school lunch nutrition and supporting the families of military veterans, but perhaps she will be best known for the speech she gave on a platform in Philadelphia in 2016 that wrapped up to its conclusion with:

"So don't let anyone ever tell you that this country isn't great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this, right now, is the greatest country on earth."

'Obamacare’s Kindest Critic'

Obamacare has been assailed from the political right and left, but its namesake took an unusual step in publishing a critique that suggested ways his legacy achievement could be perfected and expanded.

Obamacare has been assailed from the political right and left, but its namesake took an unusual step in publishing a critique that suggested ways his legacy achievement could be perfected and expanded.

Republicans are convening in Cleveland this week and can be expected to bash Obamacare nonstop, but constructive criticism of the Affordable Care Act came last week from an unanticipated quarter – Barack Obama.

Signing his critique as Barack Obama, J.D., the President described how his legacy achievement could be perfected by adding a public health insurance option and allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug rates, which is currently prohibited.

The New York Times called Obama “Obamacare’s kindest critic” and said his suggestions have the appearance of a memo to his hoped-for Democratic presidential successor, Hillary Clinton.

“Presidents usually wait until their memoirs to review their work,” the Times editorialized, but in this case Obama used the sixth anniversary of the act to make observations about his handiwork in the Journal of the American Medical Association. "Health care costs are still too high, he wrote, and 29 million people still lack coverage.”

One of Obamacare’s “failings” is an incomplete expansion of Medicaid in 19 states that chose not to accept federal financial assistance to pay for expanded coverage.

But Obama points to the actual failure of providing coverage for 9.1 percent of the U.S. population. Obamacare reduced that total from 16 percent, but there are still people who can’t afford health care, often because they lack the money for co-pays and deductibles in addition to health insurance premiums.

Unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders campaigned hard on a Medicare-for-all health insurance plan that captured a lot of attention and rekindled interest in a single-payer system. Obama’s recommendation to add a public option to the health insurance exchange is a more targeted version of the idea, which possibly could win bipartisan support if aimed at rural areas with few private-sector health insurance choices, the Times said.

Clinton has expressed support for a public option. The Times notes Clinton has also voiced interest in allowing Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 to enroll in Medicare.

The Obama view on Obamacare is that it isn’t going away any time soon, but it should be improved and perfected as part of a continuing drive to put a blanket of health insurance coverage over all Americans.

Not everyone agrees. Leading Republicans continue to call for repeal of Obamacare and replacing it with something else, which has largely been ill-defined. The Obamacare health care exchanges are under pressure as costs continue to rise and some insurers lose money. Efforts in Oregon and elsewhere to promote coordinated care and integration of physical and mental health care have registered some positive results, but are still in an extended trial stage. Employers have largely retained private health insurance coverage for employees, but have blunted cost increases by opting for plans with higher deductibles and co-pays and trimmer provider networks.

“What Mr. Obama has done is unusual – asking someone else to burnish a legacy of which he is personally proud,” the Times said. “If the candidates (and Congress) pay attention, his request may also do a world of good for millions of Americans for whom decent health care remains out of reach."

Taking the Political Bite Out of Trade

Opposition to international trade deals has welled up in both presidential primaries, but few realistic proposals have surfaced to address worker security in the face of unstoppable globalization and technological change.

Opposition to international trade deals has welled up in both presidential primaries, but few realistic proposals have surfaced to address worker security in the face of unstoppable globalization and technological change.

International trade deals have been trashed by presidential candidates in both parties, but realistic alternatives that would do more good than harm have been scarce.

Economists admit globalization of manufacturing and distribution, huge cross-border capital flows and accelerating technology changes have taken their toll on jobs and job security. However, they warn scrapping trade deals and trying to erect trade barriers will create worse economic problems without protecting workers they seek to shield.

A better approach, according to economists, is to increase support, especially in terms of job training for workers who lose their jobs because of globalization or trade deals that favor some sectors at the expense of others.

The Trade Adjustment Assistance program exists to provide that support, but is woefully funded compared to dislocated worker programs in other industrialized nations. It also isn’t very practical. The program pays for job training, but unemployed workers still need to earn money to pay a mortgage and put food on their family table.

Increasing funding for Trade Adjustment Assistance hasn’t been a political priority, but the deep discontent that has welled up by working class families all across the nation, as reflected by their votes for “outsider” presidential candidates strongly opposing trade deals, may change that.

Another idea kicking around in economist circles is called wage insurance. This involves wage subsidies to workers who lose their jobs so they can afford to take lower-paying jobs while obtaining job training. President Obama mentioned wage insurance in his final State of the Union address earlier this year.

Bolstering the Trade Adjustment Assistance program or enacting some type of wage subsidy doesn’t have the same raw appeal on the political stump as GOP frontrunner Donald Trump saying he will cut better trade deals with China, Japan and others. But his promise, based largely on his negotiating skill as a hotel developer, may not be worth the risk of a costly trade war that triggers a global recession.

Democratic contender Bernie Sanders has criticized former President Bill Clinton for pushing through the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has resulted in the transfer of U.S. manufacturing jobs to Mexico. Both he and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton have expressed opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a key Obama priority. But neither Sanders nor Clinton have articulated a clear alternative to the TPP, which Obama defends as a roadmap for economic development in the Pacific Rim written by the United States, not China.

Free trade policies have been problematic for labor-backed Democrats and now appear to be a challenge for big business friendly Republicans, too. Protectionism also faces headwinds because American consumers are savvy enough to know that would mean higher prices for goods. Businesses, farmers and workers in states like Oregon and Washington that have export-dependent economies realize protectionism would hurt them.

As a result politicians on both sides of the aisle may be forced to pursue policies that produce tangible improvements for middle-class workers who have been and likely will remain vulnerable to new economic realities.

It is one thing to rail about trade policy on the campaign stump (Obama certainly did in his 2008 campaign), but it is another to stare at the hard realities. The United States remains the dominant world economy, but it no longer commands a position where it can call all the shots. The global economy is more intertwined so a hiccup on the Chinese stock market or refugee flows into Europe can impact the U.S. economy.

Just about everyone has a stake in figuring out trade policy. It may be the most fundamental middle-class American issue. It matters to young people who must navigate careers that don’t have life-time job guarantees. Those at the top of the economic heap may face growing unrest and a sharper shift to the political left if more isn’t done to provide greater job security to a growing group of Americans.

Activist labor programs could be the best defense against worker frustration, the least statist policy and the most popular political talking point. There is a general election coming up this fall to try out this approach.

The Paradoxical Presidential Power Shift

The Republican strategy of stonewalling President Obama has had the unintended effect of expanding power in the executive branch. As the Republican Congress has said no to his proposals at nearly every turn, Obama has instead turned to executive orders to see his plans through.

The Republican strategy of stonewalling President Obama has had the unintended effect of expanding power in the executive branch. As the Republican Congress has said no to his proposals at nearly every turn, Obama has instead turned to executive orders to see his plans through.

President Obama’s “creative use of executive authority” is a paradoxical power shift caused by a GOP-controlled Congress intent on blocking an “ideological enemy” at every turn, according to Zachary Karabell writing for Politico.

“The long-run effect of Obama enmity,” Karabell says, “has been to enable this president to expand the power of the executive branch, perhaps permanently.” The author of “The Leading Indicators, A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World,” says expanded presidential power has raised the stakes on who Americans elect to the position.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today on the latest challenge to Obama’s authority, which involves his decision to grant temporary work permit status to some four million undocumented parents of U.S.-born children. Obama’s executive orders also have dealt with student loans, workplace leave, minimum wage, deportations, gun violence and environmental regulation.

Republican critics have accused Obama of abusing and overstepping his constitutional powers as President, but Karabell says Obama has filled the vacuum left by GOP inaction. “Republicans are hardly passive victims of an overweening executive,” he writes. “They are, in fact, paying for their own unilateral surrender.”

Unable to repeal or pass an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, congressional Republicans have settled for obstructing Obama-backed legislation. However, Karabell says Republicans “also relinquished much of its primary tool, the power of the purse.” “Congress and the White House have not agreed on a budget since 2009 and only at the end of 2015 was an actual budget passed by the House,” he notes.

Karabell speculates Obama may become even more daring as the clock ticks down in his final term in office. Senate GOP leadership’s decision not to hold hearings on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland could lead to appointment without the advice and consent of Congress. Some constitutional scholars believe the power to appoint a Supreme Court justice resides with the President, not the Senate. Such an appointment, if made, would be a political explosion in an already incendiary election year. 

While GOP presidential contenders have wailed about Obama’s executive orders in domestic policy, the real expansion of power, Karabell suggests, has been in national security and foreign military engagement. “The broad implementation of drone warfare (hundreds of strikes over the past five years) would have been stymied were it not for judges and tribunals that have given the executive, CIA and military wide latitude.”

Fear of executive power is hardly new in America. Founding Fathers fretted about it, which led to the creation of checks and balances aimed at preventing it. Of course, those checks and balances only work if they are used. 

Republican presidential candidates haven’t exactly shied away from the notion of unilateral action. Ted Cruz has described a first day in the Oval Office as tearing up Obama’s executive orders, the Iran nuclear deal and Obamacare. Donald Trump has suggested pulling out of major international trade deals and forcing the CIA to carry out waterboarding and even more extreme interrogation tactics on terrorists.

“Obama bears his share of responsibility for taking power where he could,” Karabell concludes, “but had the Republican Congress attempted to do more than thwart him, he would not have been able to.”

The upshot of Obama’s two terms in office is to make “who we elect now more important than ever,” Karabell says. “And perhaps Congress will think twice in the future about surrendering more power to the president."

The Curious and Contentious Constitutional Debate

It didn’t take long for the untimely death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to erupt into a partisan battle and curious, contentious debate over the constitution.

It didn’t take long for the untimely death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to erupt into a partisan battle and curious, contentious debate over the constitution.

The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has triggered a curious and contentious constitutional debate about his replacement.

Before Scalia’s corpse had turned cold, Senate Republicans served notice to President Obama not to bother sending up a nomination. They want to wait so the next President, who won’t be sworn in until early next year, can make the selection. Obama fired back that he plans to nominate a qualified replacement, and he expects the Senate to hold confirmation hearings and a vote. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cited an 80-year-old precedent for presidents to demur on filling Supreme Court vacancies in the final year of their term in office. A media fact checker disputed such a precedent, noting that President Reagan’s nominee, Anthony Kennedy, was confirmed in 1988, a presidential election year, on a unanimous vote by a Democratically controlled Senate. Kennedy was confirmed after the Senate rejected the earlier nomination of Robert Bork. 

Obama, who taught constitutional law at Columbia University earlier in his career, said it was his duty to nominate someone to fill a Supreme Court vacancy and the Senate’s duty to consider and vote on the nominee. He said there were no exceptions or limitations noted in the Constitution that apply to the final year of a presidential term.

The irony in this debate is that whoever succeeds Scalia will be the swing vote on a divided court that will decide whether Obama exceeded his constitutional authority in issuing executive orders.

The net effect of the tussle over whether there will be a vote or not has been to add another rancorous layer of politics to an already inflamed political environment. Some Obama haters went so far as to speculate on social media that Obama was responsible for murdering Scalia. Medical reports indicate Scalia died of a heart attack while at a remote hunting lodge in Texas.

No question that stakes are high on who will ultimately replace Scalia, who was a towering figure among conservatives who liked his legal reasoning and his colorful writing style. For now, the court has four liberal-leaning justices and four conservative-leaning justices with no ability to break a tie. In case of ties, the Supreme Court issues in effect no ruling, which would let stand lower court decisions, even if they conflict.

One legal scholar said Scalia’s untimely death will affect cases that already have been argued before the court. Scalia’s vote on those cases, the scholar said, can’t be counted if he isn’t still on the high court bench.

The issue of a lame-duck year Supreme Court nomination instantly became fodder on the presidential campaign trail, with all Republicans except Jeb Bush, urging no Senate vote and Democrats calling a GOP-imposed delay a constitutional affront.

There was an unexpected, though perhaps unsurprising, trickle down effect of the argument on races for the Senate this year. Twenty-four Republicans face re-election this year, and they may be uneasy pledging to stonewall a presidential Supreme Court nomination before finding out who is actually nominated. Supreme Court watchers have identified at least two potential nominees who were vetted in recent Senate confirmation hearings and voted in as federal judges on unanimous Senate votes.

One of the most curious pieces of speculation that bubbled up in the rough-and-tumble follow-up to Scalia’s death was that a delay in replacing the former Justice could paradoxically lead to Obama getting the nomination if a Democrat is elected President.

Staying the Course May Be Off Course

Hillary Clinton may be the most experienced and well-versed candidate in the presidential field, but she faces the unpredictable headwinds of an electorate that has given up on the status quo and gone in search of political outsiders.

Hillary Clinton may be the most experienced and well-versed candidate in the presidential field, but she faces the unpredictable headwinds of an electorate that has given up on the status quo and gone in search of political outsiders.

Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton painted herself in the last Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses as the candidate who would defend President Obama’s legacy. That message faces stiff headwinds in this election cycle where voters on the political right and left have lost patience with the status quo.

The evidence is in the strength in the GOP presidential primary of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who thumb their noses at anyone in the political mainstream, including members of their own party. The surge of support for Bernie Sanders, who calls for a political revolution and makes unvarnished attacks on big banks, big drug companies and big campaign donors, suggests voter unrest resides in both major parties.

In the space of a week, anyone paying attention was treated to three pictures of America, which could easily be described as three alternate realities.

Obama’s final State of the Union address to Congress touted his administration’s achievements in health care, the economy and diplomacy. The Republican presidential debate was coated with an apocalyptic tone that depicted American leadership as feeble, feckless and failing. The Democratic presidential debate walked through a host of specific issues, leaving an impression that progress had occurred, but nearly enough, especially on health care reform, breaking up big banks and curbing the power of billionaire political donors.

Allowing for typical political hyperbole in an election season, the chasms between the three visions were stark and startling.

It fell to Hillary Clinton to add perspective, noting that the largest abyss is between the Democrats and Republicans running for President. She characterized her candidacy as one of building on Obama’s achievements, not tearing them down and starting over, especially the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms.

However, defending the status quo may make Clinton vulnerable in an election year where reality and facts matter less than fiction and fear.

By almost any measure, Clinton is the most experienced and well-versed presidential candidate in either party. When asked about the big issues, she gives the most specific answers, often laced with personal involvement in the issue as a former First Lady, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State. Though appealing in most elections, that kind of knowledge runs counter to the current mood.

Vox published a piece last week titled, “The GOP debate described a terrifying world that doesn’t actually exist.” Examples it points to included the Cruz plug for “13 Hours,” the new movie that depicts the 2012 Benghazi attacks based on a debunked conspiracy theory, exaggerated descriptions of ISIS and the threat of domestic terrorism.

“For perspective: The number of Americans killed per year by terrorism is the same as the number crushed to death by their own furniture,” noted Vox reporter Zach Beauchamp. That contrasts, he added, with 33,000 deaths caused by firearms, which GOP candidates failed to mention in their zeal to defend the 2nd Amendment.

Sanders’ call for a political revolution centers on reversing the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which paved the way for Super PACs and large individual and corporate campaign donations. While many Democrats agree with him, old political hands don’t see that happening soon – or at all.

Breaking up big banks, which Sanders says control a huge proportion of the U.S. gross domestic product, has been discussed and, according to Clinton, is possible under existing provisions of Dodd-Frank. Moving to a single-payer universal health care system, as Sanders advocates, has been debated, too. Neither idea passed when Democrats held the presidency while maintaining control of the House and Senate. They are less likely to get anywhere under the split government control of today.

Manufactured threats or overblown ambitions haven’t dissuaded voters. They flock to rallies for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Trump’s supporters tend to be angry white people who see their security slipping away, while Sanders appeals to restless young people who worry about inheriting an uncertain future.

Political convulsions, while painful to watch and experience, can produce momentous change. That appears to be what many Americans from across the political spectrum want. And even though Hillary Clinton might be the best prepared to navigate major change, she may be viewed as too wedded to the past to be given the chance.

Different Reactions to Foreign, Domestic Shootings

The Paris terrorist attack has drawn calls for swift action by many political figures who were largely silent in the wake of the shootings at Umpqua Community College.

The Paris terrorist attack has drawn calls for swift action by many political figures who were largely silent in the wake of the shootings at Umpqua Community College.

The terrorist attack in Paris has prompted demands for swift action by American political figures who were largely silent after recent shootings at Umpqua Community College.

GOP presidential candidates, such as Marco Rubio, said the United States should refuse to accept any Syrian refugees because "they are too hard to vet." Several Republican governors said they wouldn't let Syrian refugees into their states. Jeb Bush advocated for only allowing in refugees who are Christians.

Others called President Obama's strategy too timid and urged stronger military measures, including in a few cases putting U.S. ground forces into the Syrian fray. Presidential hopeful Donald Trump publicly toyed with the idea of closing mosques.

Ironically, most of the Republican officials expressing outrage over the Paris incident were largely silent in the wake of the domestic attack at UCC and other shootings that involved the deaths of American citizens.

Catastrophic events generate outrage and windbaggery. Political finger-pointing follows, too. But that doesn't fully justify the sharp difference in response to foreigners killing Frenchmen as opposed to Americans killing Americans.

People who follow U.S. politics understand the reason for reticence in addressing domestic gun violence – the National Rifle Association and its major sponsors, gun manufacturers. As best we can tell, the NRA has no qualms if politicians rail against gun violence overseas.

Outrage at the indiscriminate carnage in Paris is near universal. It is hard to quarrel with French President Francois Hollande's declaration that the attacks we're an "act of war." It is also hard to dispute that tougher measures may be required to defeat ISIS, which took credit for the Paris massacre.

However, the rage aimed at Syrian refugees seems misplaced. Yes, one of the assailants in Paris apparently smuggled himself into Europe masquerading as a refugee. There well could be other ISIS operatives who have entered Europe under the same guise. But the vast majority of refugees really are refugees, trying to escape from a place where their national leader drops barrel bombs on them and insurgents who enslave and behead them.

Major events in the past, such as the 9/11 attacks in New York City, have unified political leadership. That doesn't seem to be the fashion now. Republicans have blamed Obama for the rise of ISIS. Obama has responded defensively and basically said Republicans have no workable plan to stop ISIS.

New House Speaker Paul Ryan got a taste of political venom when Mike Huckabee called him out for not being strong enough in blocking Syrian refugees, even after Ryan gave an interview saying, "What matters to me is not only do we prevent people from coming in, but we don't bring them in. We've got to make sure we're protecting ourselves."

Where was all that energy when American blood was spilled? Where was the concern about vetting bad actors with guns on our own soil?

The Longest Wait

Loretta Lynch will become the first African-American women to be the U.S. attorney general, but only after setting a contemporary record for her delayed confirmation, which has stalled because of politics. Photo by  United States Mission Geneva .

Loretta Lynch will become the first African-American women to be the U.S. attorney general, but only after setting a contemporary record for her delayed confirmation, which has stalled because of politics. Photo by United States Mission Geneva.

Much of what goes on in the Capitol is opaque to most Americans, including the lengthy delay in confirming a presidential cabinet nominee.

Loretta Lynch is close to becoming a record. President Obama's choice to become the next attorney general − and the first African American woman to hold the job is approaching the 147-day record of Togo West, a President Clinton appointee for Veterans Affairs. Republicans delayed West's confirmation because of concerns Clinton gave Arlington Cemetery plots to campaign donor, allegations that were later called unfounded.

John Bryson, Obama's nominee for Commerce secretary, stalled for 142 days. Republicans held up his conformation until free-trade deals were passed.

Lynch is in limbo because Republicans, who control the Senate, are using her confirmation as political leverage to pass an anti-abortion provision as part of a human trafficking bill that enjoys bipartisan support. Some Democrats have charged that Lynch, a Harvard law graduate with impeccable prosecutorial credentials, has been left waiting in the wings for 137 days so far because she is black. Some Republicans were enraged because she defended Obama's executive order on immigration.

The Washington Post assembled a chart showing the longest confirmation delays over the last three presidencies. It shows that the average confirmation time for Obama appointees is 56 days, compared to 44 days under President George W. Bush and Clinton.

Lynch is likely to be confirmed at some point. Her delayed approval is also likely to deepen partisan feelings that already run pretty deep. Her appointment and confirmation is a case study on how political parties wrestle for advantage, using whatever holds they can.

Related Link: Which Clinton, Bush or Obama Cabinet nominee waited longest to be confirmed? Soon it will be Loretta Lynch.

The Intractable Trade Issue

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden finds himself in the middle of a high-stakes debate over a major free-trade agreement with Asian Pacific partners and the rules by which the Obama administration will need to follow to negotiate the deal. Photo by  SenateEnergy .

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden finds himself in the middle of a high-stakes debate over a major free-trade agreement with Asian Pacific partners and the rules by which the Obama administration will need to follow to negotiate the deal. Photo by SenateEnergy.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden finds himself in the middle of a major trade policy debate that could affect the ultimate fate of a Trans-Pacific trade agreement sought by the Obama administration.

Oregonian political reporter Jeff Mapes says Wyden, despite a history as a free trader, is the cause of a delayed hearing on so-called fast-track authority for the administration to negotiate a trade deal.

According to Mapes, the hang-up is over how many senators it would take to retract fast-track authority. Congressional Republicans want 67 senators, while Wyden wants 60. Wyden's view matters because he is the ranking Democrat on Senate Finance, the committee that would scrutinize any trade deals.

A free trade agreement with Asian Pacific partners is viewed as one of the major legislative opportunities this Congress for Republicans to work with President Obama in his final two years in office.

Wyden isn't retreating from his free-trade position, even though he has been pressured to do so from organized labor leaders, including Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain. Mapes says Wyden is trying to find middle ground.

For example, Wyden has agreed with opponents that trade pact negotiations are too secretive. "Transparency, congressional accountability ... and enforcement is really the key to coming up with a sensible, bipartisan trade agreement," Mapes reports Wyden as saying. Wyden says he wants a "good deal."

Senate Republicans seem less worried about how trade negotiations are conducted. That is somewhat ironic in light of the controversial letter 47 GOP senators sent this week to Iranian officials expressing their strong desire to approve any nuclear arms limitation deal negotiated by President Obama. 

Trade agreements have special importance to the West Coast and Oregon. The Port of Portland is one of the largest export platforms on the West Coast, which Wyden has acknowledged.

"People want to buy our wheat, they want to buy our computers, our wine," Wyden told Mapes. "The Oregon brand is just on fire all over the world and we ought to be able to get our exports, particularly, into Asia. ... If I could get in a sentence for my economic philosophy, it is  grow things in Oregon, make things in Oregon, add value to them in Oregon and then ship 'em somewhere."

However, Wyden, who is up for re-election in 2016, faces electoral pushback. Chamberlain, while crediting Wyden for working hard to reach out to both sides of the debate, said the senator's position for fast-track authority and a Trans-Pacific trade deal could cost him official labor backing next year.

Democracy for America has sent out a large mailing urging Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio to challenge Wyden. DeFazio said he has no interest in running against Wyden. 

Related Link: In free-trade fight, Ron Wyden emerges as key negotiating figure in Congress

Hasty Retreat on 529 College Savings Plans

The Obama administration dropped its plan to tax 529 College Savings Plans after detractors said it would hurt, not help middle-class Americans.

The Obama administration dropped its plan to tax 529 College Savings Plans after detractors said it would hurt, not help middle-class Americans.

The Obama administration beat a hasty and tactical retreat by yanking its idea to tax 529 College Savings Plan investment earnings. The proposal drew bipartisan barbs in defense of the popular college savings accounts available in most states.

Obama spokesperson said the 529 plan tax proposal was scrapped to allow the focus to remain on other parts of the President's higher education initiative, especially free tuition for two years of community college paid for by an increase in the federal capital gains tax. They also said the tax revenue from the proposal wasn't that large anyway.

However, the pressure to dump the idea was intense. Republicans, led by House Speaker John Boehner, said eliminating the tax-preferred status of 529 College Savings Plans would hurt middle-class Americans. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said pretty much the same thing as she rode with President Obama on his Air Force One flight from India to Saudi Arabia.

529 College Savings Plans vary from state to state, but essentially allow contributors — usually parents and grandparents — to put money into an account for a student and receive a tax break. The earnings on money in the student's 529 account aren't taxable as long as they are withdrawn down the line for a qualified educational expense.

Data shows that 80 percent of the tax benefits from contributions to more than 7 million existing 529 plan accounts go to households with more than $150,000 of annual income and 70 percent to households earning more than $200,000. Defenders of 529 plans say 10 percent of contributions are attributed to households with $50,000 or less in annual income, which means the program also works as an incentive for lower-earning households.

Obama's proposal sought to redirect tax benefits associated with college expenses to an expanded American Opportunity Tax Credit, which started in the 2009 economic stimulus bill as a tuition credit aimed at helping families paying for college, even if they didn't earn enough to pay federal income tax. The Government Accountability Office ran estimates showing Obama's plan would drive more economic benefits for families with $100,000 or less in annual income than the current 529 plan benefits.

“It’s kind of baffling that people in the middle are convinced they are getting hit hard when virtually all of them are the winners,” Robert Greenstein, the president of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told the New York Times.

However, that was lost in the political furor Obama's plan ignited.

529 plans are popular in part because they are a fairly easy way to transfer wealth from one generation to another. Tax benefits aren't always the primary motivating reason for the contributions. Threatening these plans showed their broad-based acceptance and popularity by many middle-income families and households.

Picture of Gridlock

President Obama's State of the Union Address didn't appeal to Republicans, but may have been intended as the first salvo in the 2016 election.

President Obama's State of the Union Address didn't appeal to Republicans, but may have been intended as the first salvo in the 2016 election.

It was easy to spot who was who last night at President Obama's next-to-last State of the Union Address to Congress. The people standing up and cheering were fellow Democrats. The people sitting down were Republicans.

After the speech, GOP spokesmen said Obama needs a "reality check" because many of his proposals, such as raising taxes on wealthy Americans, won't fly in the new Congress controlled by Republicans. Democrats said Republicans can't admit that the economy is rolling and are unwilling to tackle issues such as wage stagnation that hobble middle and lower income Americans.

You could say the packed House chamber was the picture of gridlock in Washington, DC.

A close-up of that picture was visible as the TV cameras showed the respective reactions from Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner who were seated behind Obama during the speech. Biden nodded in agreement and rose repeatedly to applaud. Boehner clapped his hands tepidly a few times and mostly grimaced as Obama spoke.

Republicans say Obama failed to acknowledge voter repudiation of his policies that led the GOP to majorities in both the House and Senate. They also say he missed opportunities to identify areas of potential compromise, such as steps to strengthen Medicare.

Obama did cross swords with his own party by asking for fast-track authority to negotiate new international trade agreements in Europe and Asia, which many Republicans support. But he promised vetoes on legislation that tried to undo his executive actions on immigration.

Despite the closing section of Obama's speech where he said Washington is better than gridlock, there was little in his text or delivery to suggest he was willing to budge on his political priorities. Many observers called his speech the first salvo in the 2016 election.

When Obama mentioned he has no more election campaigns, some congressional Republicans applauded. Obama, with a smile on his face, shot back, "I know because I won both of them." The President also looked directly at the concentration of Republicans in the chamber when he ticked off positive economic indicators and said something to the effect of "That's good stuff."

For their part, Republicans invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak from the same podium as Obama did. Netanyahu has objected to the deal the Obama administration is trying to cut with Iran to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power. Boehner pointedly told reporters he extended the invitation to Netanyahu without notifying Obama.

The President's speech and Republican reactions follow what has become a political ritual. Now that political points have been made and battle lines drawn, it is still possible Obama and GOP congressional leaders can do some of the country's business.

Democrats Miss Chance to Tell Success Story

Democrats had a great story to tell, but they failed to tell it and lost their majority in the Senate. 

Democrats had a great story to tell, but they failed to tell it and lost their majority in the Senate. 

Republicans nearly swept all competitive Senate races to take control of the Senate. In the House, the GOP majority enlarged to 243 members, giving Republicans the biggest majority since Harry Truman – and, as returns are still tabulated, possibly the biggest majority since 1930. So the results are clear. What's less clear is how Democrats flubbed in telling their story.

Why did Democrats run away from arguably some of the most compelling domestic successes for which they could claim a share of responsibility?

In any other decade, if I were to tell you:

  • The stock market has more than doubled and continues to push all-time highs;

  • Gas prices have plummeted to the lowest level in a decade;

  • The country is closer to energy independence than at any time in 40 years;

  • Unemployment has fallen from 10 percent to less than 6 percent;

  • Crime is relatively low; and

  • Welfare, food stamps and unemployment benefits are quickly coming back to normal levels, you would think that the economy was moving in the right direction.

Add to this, the number of uninsured has fallen from 18 percent before the Affordable Care Act was implemented to 13.4 percent and budget deficits have been cut by two-thirds from $1.5 trillion to $500 billion. This seems like an incredible record to run on.

While the Obama Administration and Senate Democrats can't take credit for all of these indicators, it's dumbfounding that they would not scream these figures from the rooftops. Nearly every economic indicator suggests our country is heading in the right direction, yet no politician seems to have the guts to say it.

Why is that? The counter-argument to touting these numbers is you don't want to seem out of touch and a lot of Americans are still hurting. By referencing these positive numbers, it could highlight that one doesn't understand the obstacles that average Americans are facing on a daily basis. That is certainly true and Democrats could have qualified these messages by saying more needs to be done. However, ignoring these positive indicators seems like political malpractice.

By and large, Democrats ran on increasing the minimum wage and gender equality — and ran away from the President who was their partner in achieving economic and social policy success.

Looking back, it seems like these two issues pale in comparison to what could have been an extremely powerful message. Democrats won't be able to say two years from now, "We told you so," because they didn't.

Lewinsky Scandal Tipped Presidential Approval Ratings

The spike in partisan presidential approval ratings can be traced to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

The spike in partisan presidential approval ratings can be traced to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

President Obama's approval ratings have continued to droop under the weight of criticism about his handling of the Ebola crisis as he has steadfastly refused, as critics have demanded, to close the U.S. border to anyone traveling from West Africa.

Curiously, Monica Lewinsky, now in her 40s, has resurfaced to talk about her love affair with President Bill Clinton. A Washington Post political blogger sees a connection.

Presidential approval ratings have taken on a partisan flavor, just as other aspects of political life. Gallup generated data showing the most polarized viewpoints of Presidents over the last 50 years have occurred since 2000 with the contested election of George W. Bush.

The gaps between Republicans and Democrats is astounding. Approval ratings for Obama in 2012-2013 and for Bush in 2004-2005 showed a 76 percentage point spread among partisans.

President Bill Clinton's approval rating in 1996-1997 was 85 percent by Democrats, but only 23 percent by Republicans — a 62 percentage-point spread.

President Ronald Reagan's approval rating in 1984-1985 was 89 percent by Republicans and 29 percent by Democrats — a 60 percentage-point spread.

Chris Cillizza, writing "The Fix" political blog in The Washington Post, says the Clinton scandal involving Monica Lewinsky was what cemented polarized perspectives on Presidents.

"Democrats came to view the whole Lewinsky saga as a personal foible that, while awful for the Clintons, meant nothing as to whether or not Bill Clinton was — or could be — and effective President," Cillizza wrote. "Republicans, on the other hand, viewed Clinton's initial lies about the relationship as fundamentally disqualifying."

"There's no question that the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal – and by that I mean the whole thing, including how the media covered it, how politicians reacted to it and how technology turned it into a worldwide sensation — was a pivot point in American politics, a time when things changed and haven't changed back."

Beheadings May Unite a Divided Nation

Maybe it took the beheading of American journalists to unify a national divided on almost everything to confront the newest danger to world security.Most pundits predicted it would take a miracle to unsnarl partisan gridlock in DC. Maybe it will take something very non-miraculous, like the beheadings of two American journalists by Islamic radicals.

As Congress wanders back to the nation's capital, pressure is building on President Obama to take action against what is viewed as the fast emerging threat posed by ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The threat is fresh enough, there is even disagreement over what to call it. Obama and others refer to the group as ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Poll Reflects a Seething, Alienated Public

Americans aren't happy. They see the country headed on the wrong track. They aren't satisfied with the economic recovery. They have low opinions of the President and Congress. They think America is in decline. They believe a widening gap in incomes undermines the idea of opportunity for all.

Those are some of the findings from a poll conducted this month by Hart Research Associates for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal. Hart interviewed 1,000 American adults, including 350 respondents who only have a cell phone, which yielded a broad spectrum of participation, including 11 percent from adults between the ages of 18 and 24. 

The public rarely has an opportunity to see raw poll results from a credible pollster. Hart Research was founded by Peter Hart in 1971. In addition to work for Democrats, Hart Research has conducted surveys for nonprofits and social causes. Since 1989, Hart has teamed with a leading Republican pollster to conduct polls shared with the public. 

Some of the findings in the latest poll aren't surprising and don't veer from recent trends. The last time Americans thought the country was headed in the right direction was April 2009 and even then it was a 43-43 percent tie.

Much is made of declines in approval ratings for President Obama, but they aren't as severe as some suggest. The August poll showed 42 percent of respondents approved of Obama's handling of the economy, compared to 53 percent disapproving. However, the low-water mark for Obama came in May 2011 when his approval rating was just 37 percent. It was 39 percent as recently as last December.