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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Happy Birthday Mr. Vice President, Obama's Immigration Move, and Midterm Post-Mortem

(PHOTO ON LEFT: Vice President Joe Biden's signature and handwritten note on my copy of Promises to Keep, his 2007 memoir; it reads: 'Mr. President, Keep the faith and please stay involved.') 

I've got another three-pronged blog post today. Enjoy!


Happy 72nd birthday to Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., the greatest vice president in American history. For a decade, I've deeply admired Vice President Biden, ever since I saw him appear as a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2005. It's not just because he's from northeastern Pennsylvania, like me. Biden overcame several difficulties and challenges in life, ranging from the financial misfortunes of his father to the death of his first wife and child in a car accident to a brain aneurysm in 1988. The manner in which he handled himself and the strength of character he displayed amid these troubles reflect a solid moral compass. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. compelled us to find the true character of an individual when that individual is tested by adversity, not when that person is prospering. When Biden was tested, he demonstrated moral strength, most notably when he made the decision to take the train home every single day as a senator, after the 1972 car crash, to spend time with his sons. Like all of us, Biden is not perfect in this regard and he would be the first to admit it. Nevertheless, as seen in his compelling memoir Promises to Keep, Biden has shown real grit, resilience, and compassion in his productive life. 

In his political life, Biden has also excelled -- another reason why I admire him. His advocacy for victims of rape and sexual assault inspired me to work to reform sexual assault policies at GW, as a senator in the Student Association Senate. He was ahead of his time on this issue. When Biden wrote the Violence Against Women Act, laws across the country were fundamentally flawed in how they addressed sexual assault. Due to his work in writing VAWA, federal and state policies are dramatically better for victims of sexual assault. Further, his efforts in crafting strong gun safety laws in 1994, securing decades of federal funding for Amtrak, his longtime support for tackling pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, his successful bid to block Robert Bork from sitting on the Supreme Court, and his call for intervention in Kosovo are all part of a solid, progressive public policy record. 

As Vice President, Biden has built on this success. His stewardship of the Recovery Act was vindicated as the law saved or created 3.5 million jobs and had virtually no corruption, his advice on Afghanistan proved prescient, the three legislative deals he struck with the congressional GOP avoided entitlement cuts and delivered key Democratic policy victories, and his early endorsement of marriage equality rightly compelled President Obama to support it months before he was set to announce his support. In the political arena, Biden is imperfect and has been wrong on several policy issues but on the whole, the country is better because of his work.

On a personal note, Biden treated me with the utmost respect, affection, and appreciation when we brought him to campus here at GW to be the end of year speaker for the GW College Democrats. The conversations we shared before and after the event, backstage, were reflective of his genuine affability, personable qualities, and his love of people. We chatted a lot about our northeastern Pennsylvania roots, our shared interest in strengthening how our country addresses sexual assault issues, and the trouble some have with our names.

If he were to run for president, he wouldn't be the first person with "name troubles," if you will, though to seek the job. I genuinely hope Vice President Biden does make the decision to run for president in 2016. He would be in a strong position as Barack Obama's vice president. We are likely to see economic growth continue to accelerate in the next two years -- and, barring other crises, that ought to increase Obama's job approval rating. Biden can successfully run on the growing economy and vow to continue the economic policies that brought us the recovery. In The Message Matters, political scientist Lynn Vavreck notes that candidates for whom the economy benefits them in the general election are "clarifying candidates" and, to maximize their chances of victory, such candidates ought to run on the economy. Biden could easily do this given that he ran the Obama administration's $826 billion stimulus package which breathed new life into the economy. The public seems to be pleased with Biden's work in this regard too: his job approval rating is at 51 percent, nearly ten points higher than Obama's approval. 

Beyond that, he is consistently polling ahead potential GOP presidential candidates Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio in general election polling. His strength in the general election would be amplified by a likely solid debate performance; in the 2007 Democratic primary debates and in the 2008 and 2012 general elections, Biden consistently delivered widely praised debate performances. In the general election, Biden would also likely help his own chances by giving a strong Democratic National Convention address. In fact, the speech he delivered at the 2012 DNC was the highest-rated speech of the entire convention -- the same convention that gave Obama a robust boot in polling. Given his roots in Pennsylvania and his appeal to working-class voters in Ohio, Biden would be able to do well electorally as well. He should give it a run. 


Last night, on MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes, host Chris Hayes argued that President Obama's upcoming executive decision to provide deportation relief to millions of undocumented immigrants was "bold and politically risky." I couldn't agree more. As frequent Obama critic Glenn Greenwald wrote in May 2009 when the President nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, "at his best, Obama ignores and is even willing to act contrary to the standard establishment Washington voices and mentality that have corrupted our political culture for so long." In the realm of immigration, Obama today will be demonstrating that same trait. Much of the "standard establishment Washington" elite is solidly against the President's decision. Political pundits, some members of Congress from both parties, editorialists, and other figures in the DC elite are insistent that Obama's action is "poisoning the well," an attack on bipartisanship, and an allegedly radical move. 

If Obama listened to these voices, more families would be tragically separated, the economy would not benefit from the work that these immigrants will not be authorized to engage in, and the future that the real people involved here would face would be uncertain at best and deadly at worst. It's true that Obama had a disturbingly hawkish record on deportation in his first term; the Secure Communities program of his first Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, had mixed results at best. It should also be noted though that those policies were likely executed in part to assuage congressional concerns that the "border is not secure" and that the administration was not "faithfully enforcing the laws." Still, the policies were troubling -- and they failed to convince those congressional critics anyway. 

Nevertheless, thankfully, Obama is reversing course now from his earlier, incorrect proclamations that he did not have the executive authority to relieve deportations. His 2012 policy of giving deportation relief to hundreds of thousands of so-called "Dreamers" was the right move for our economy, it was humane, and it was a reflection of smart prosecutorial discretion. The fact that he is going to expand on such discretion now is welcomed news. He deserves credit in large part because not only does the decision fly in the face of DC political establishment voices but also because it is the right thing to do, it is still politically unpopular given recent public opinion polling, and it runs the risk of galvanizing a right-wing congressional majority against him. 

Ultimately too, as former President Bill Clinton noted, Obama is on clearly strong legal footing, something reaffirmed by conservative Supreme Court justices, the (conservative) Federalist Society, and the precedent of previous GOP presidents providing deportation relief. Lastly, it should be noted that advocates for immigration reform deserve tremendous credit too. Their persistence, pressure, and persuasiveness, in assembling legal scholars to back their case and meeting with the president personally many times, helped make this day possible. In American political history, groups like these advocates are the ones who shape and form the evolution of our rights and liberties. Nobody makes this case better than the late political historian Howard Zinn, who wrote the famous A People's History of the United States. That was the case with abolitionists in the 1850s and 1860s, it was the case with the civil rights movement, it was the case with the LGBT rights movement, and it was the case with immigration advocates too. 


Finally, I want to make a note about the midterm elections. The fact of the matter is that even the best run campaign sometimes cannot overcome the fundamentals of an election. Look no further than Alaska. In the Senate race there, Democratic incumbent Mark Begich ran on a progressive platform that included a defense of the Affordable Care Act and expanding Social Security. Begich also had a superb ground game operation, evidenced in the fact that a large percentage of Alaskans reported being contacted by his campaign. Despite all of this, Begich still lost the race, albeit by a narrow margin. If anything, Begich did not lose for any lack of campaigning or bad messaging. He came extremely close but the fundamentals are the fundamentals: he represented a very Republican state, a state which voted against President Obama twice, and it was a year in which the sitting Democratic president was unpopular due to various perceived leadership crises. Given this climate, even a strong campaign cannot be enough to lift a senator likely doomed from the start. 

I emphasize this because so much of the commentary, especially in The New Republic, post-midterms is focused on Democratic messaging and that if only that was better, would the party's chances have improved. Probably not. Democrats across the country ran on popular issues like raising the minimum wage but they still lost. It's very likely their advocacy on those issues did help their chances but it was not enough. Kay Hagan is a perfect example of this. She ran, by all accounts, a great campaign focused on popular issues but she still lost likely due to public disapproval of the Democratic president's handling of ISIS and Ebola (especially in North Carolina, which Obama lost in 2012). 

A final point is to address the fact that some may argue: the economy is doing well so why did Democrats suffer? The best explanation I heard about this comes from Ross Dothuat in The New York Times. It is quite possible that in 2012, voters were patient on economic growth and gave Obama the benefit of the doubt of pulling the nation out of a severe recession. Now, it's likely voters' patience with seeing wages pick up for lower and middle income voters has run out -- and I think this is absolutely correct. Dothuat's observation was reaffirmed by exit polling, in which voters overwhelmingly said the economy favors the rich. It's true that some Obama policies, like the Medicaid expansion in the ACA and the bolstering of anti-poverty programs in the Recovery Act and raising the minimum wage for federal contractor workers, have put a dent in income inequality and aimed to boost wages. However, the next Democratic nominee for president ought to lay out a vision to build on these policies and to be even bolder if the nominee wishes to connect with voters' concerns about economic growth not being broadly shared. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Obama's Universal Pre-K Plan: A Solid Recipe for Reducing Income Inequality

NOTE: The following post is a policy argument essay I wrote for my GW class, Politics of Inequality in the United States, taught by Professor Robert Stoker. 

(PHOTO courtesy The New York Times: President and Mrs. Obama, seen here in early February 2009, visit a school in Washington, D.C.)
In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama advocated for the adoption of universal pre-kindergarten education in the United States. [1] The city of Chicago and states such as Georgia and Oklahoma have all experimented with successful pre-K programs in the last several years. The results have provided a clear framework for how an effectively implemented preschool education program can enhance learning and dramatically increase earnings of low-income individuals. If federal policymakers were to enact the President’s proposal for national universal pre-kindergarten education, then there would be a reduction in income inequality in the United States. Obama’s proposal would provide states with Department of Education grants, linked to the states’ proportion of four-year olds from poor and middle class families, but would also expand Head Start eligibility to reach more middle-income children. [2]
Thorough studies conducted by think tanks, the evidence reflected in extensive economic research, and the examples of successful pre-K programs show such a national universal pre-K plan would lead to enormous economic and social benefits, including the alleviation of poverty. However, the successful programs of Chicago, Georgia, and Oklahoma featured several similar components that increased their success in lowering income inequality. These components are included in President Obama’s proposal thus making it likely that his plan would be successful in tackling income inequality. [3]
            “In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children,” President Obama told a joint session of Congress in February 2013, “studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own…[so] we know this works.” [4] Obama is correct in this assessment and the evidence supports his assertion. In fact, the University of Chicago, the Georgetown University Center for Research on Children in the United States, the Century Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and other think tanks and policy-oriented institutions have conducted in-depth research that reaffirms this hypothesis. However, in order for a pre-K program to be successful in reducing income inequality, a variety of research indicates it must include several components that already distinguish Obama’s proposal.
The program must be robustly funded with a dedicated financing structure, include a diverse learning environment, small class sizes, long class days, high teaching standards, high enrollment, and a comprehensive education that is subsequently sustained. [5] Indeed, according to studies analyzed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, having teachers that hold bachelor’s degrees and “low staff-to-student ratios…improve children’s social outcomes,” which are linked to income gains later in life. [6] These criteria are important in terms of alleviating income inequality. Children’s eventual income gains are tied to their initial learning outcomes, which are often dependent upon factors like class size, teacher quality, and diversity. Small class sizes allow for more personalized teaching and effective learning while qualified teachers are proven to be adept at training children and diverse classes improve learning and understanding. [7] However, “limited funding could reduce actual enrollment” thus showing how crucial it is to have a reliable, large revenue source for the sake of ensuring a program has the financial backing needed to thrive. [8]
If these criteria exist, as they do in President Obama’s proposal, universal pre-K would be a wise investment for federal policymakers and would reduce income inequality.[9] In states and communities where it has been implemented with the aforementioned components, the National Institute for Early Education Research found that pre-K programs have closed long-term income gaps.[10] Pre-K programs have also produced less long-term spending on welfare programs and prisons as a consequence of children, due to their participation in these programs, becoming less likely to resort to crime or have to rely on government support.[11] Further, as Nancy Folbre argued in a 2013 piece in The New York Times, universal pre-K alleviates inequalities for families because, since it would be offered through public education, it would help mitigate the “cost of child-rearing.”[12]
            These assertions are shared on the part of University of Chicago Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who has done research indicating for every dollar invested in early childhood intervention, $7 is saved in social costs down the road. [13] The effect in Heckman’s city of Chicago as a result of pre-K initiatives of the public schools in Chicago has been even more successful in this regard. A February 2013 report from the Center for American Progress, summarizing research done by the National Institutes of Health, asserted that “because Chicago’s program increases children’s earnings later in life…it yields about $11 for every dollar spent on it.” [14] The success of Chicago’s experimentation, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel is seeking to expand on a broader level, is largely a consequence of the city incorporating key tools that bolster the success of pre-K programs. For instance, the Chicago public schools incorporate a small teacher-to-student ratio, socioeconomic diversity in their classes, and high standards for their teachers, all components that allow for the current programs offered to be successful in reducing income inequality. [15]
            Such gains have not only been seen in Chicago. In Georgia, rural low-income children in the state universal pre-K program have seen significant economic advantages over those children who did not attend the program. [16] Further, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study showed the program resulted in marked increases in children’s learning, reading, and proficiency skills, key to childhood development that spurs the growth in abilities that are crucial for higher-paying jobs in the future. [17] There were several aspects to the program that made it particularly successful in reducing income inequality. The Center for American Progress noted that the state’s lengthy class days, small class sizes, socioeconomic diversity, and high standards for teachers all boosted its success in this regard. [18]
Ultimately, the impact the program is projected to have on long-term income inequality is significant. According to the Urban Child Institute, a Southern Education Foundation analysis found that, if Georgia’s program enrolls 82 percent of four-year-olds, “total savings to citizens…would produce a return of $5.12 for every $1 invested” and those savings would include “savings related to welfare,” as children who attended the pre-K program are projected to be far less likely to be on the welfare rolls, as adults, than are those who did not attend the pre-K program. [19] In fact, research conducted on behalf of the Institute Economic Policy Research at Stanford University even found that “the economic benefits for disadvantaged children [in Georgia] were clear.” [20]
            A similar success story is seen in the case of Oklahoma, a state widely cited by pro-universal pre-K politicians as a model for the nation. Georgetown University research shows that the program has been extremely effective on many levels, including in income gains and improving children’s cognitive skills. [21] Importantly, an Economics of Education Review study, touted by the Urban Child Institute, found low-income groups stand to benefit massively in “earnings benefits” thanks to Oklahoma’s investment in early childhood education.[22] One significant aspect of Oklahoma’s program that made it especially successful was that it had a “specially designated and protected revenue stream,” further confirming that programs that feature a consistent, reliable financing mechanism to fund the program are particularly prosperous. [23]  As demonstrated in The American Prospect, the program also has unusually high enrollment, very high standards for teachers, and a composition that “reflected the state’s demographics.” The success of such policies, in Oklahoma, reaffirms that they are effective in bolstering a pre-K program that reduces income inequality. [24]
            Nevertheless, there are examples of pre-K programs which were not successful and do not have a record of considerably reducing income inequality. However, these programs are almost exclusively initiatives that did not incorporate a dedicated financing stream and they were significantly underfunded. The programs also lacked the kind of diversity, small class size, and high teacher standards that are associated with the successful poverty-alleviating programs. For instance, as The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel pointed out in The Washington Post, New York’s pre-K program has not been successful in producing sizable gains in income for low-income children largely because it did not include a dedicated and reliable financing mechanism. [25] In Georgia, financing of the pre-K program declined during the governorship of Nathan Deal and the program’s success considerably diminished. [26] In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Corbett’s education cuts resulted in larger class sizes and the toxic combination of these cuts with increased staff-to-student ratios meant projections of a decline in long-term reduction of income inequality. [27]
 In terms of criticism of pre-K programs, Republican politicians who are skeptical of universal pre-K, as well as conservative think tanks, will often point to the mixed results of Head Start, a decades-old federal program aimed at assisting the poor, to claim that universal pre-K would fail. U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minnesota, specifically cited “what doesn’t work…in Head Start,” when asked about President Obama’s universal pre-K proposal, and The Cato Institute’s David Armor, a George Mason University public policy professor, wrote in The Washington Post that Head Start has “found few significant long-term benefits for disadvantaged children.” [28] As The Century Foundation extensively described though, it is problematic to point to Head Start as an example in describing why universal pre-K is not a worthwhile investment, as Armor argued. [29]
 Exclusively targeted towards poor children, Head Start prices out middle-class families. However, Obama’s proposal would expand the program – a move that early childhood education policy experts predict will help reduce poverty. [30] GOP critics of universal pre-K are misguided in pointing to Head Start to attack Obama’s pre-K proposal though for other reasons as well. Unlike Obama’s proposal, the current program fails to be socioeconomically diverse, does not incorporate strong teaching standards, and is “underfunded.” [31] An analysis done by the ONE Campaign found that “Head Start has been plagued by inadequate teacher training…and a need for effective standards for operation.” [32] In fact, in a 1993 speech, Zigler blamed the deficiencies of Head Start on precisely the lack of key mechanisms that often make pre-K programs work. “Inadequate funding, quality problems, and lack of socioeconomic integration,” Zigler wrote, “have plagued Head Start since its inception…[and] it needs to be improved.” The steps for improvements – higher diversity, more funding, and stronger teacher standards – are not only ones that distinguish successful pre-K programs but they are also measures Zigler too concluded would reduce child poverty. [33] The problems associated with Head Start indicate that such aforementioned ingredients, ones that the President incorporates in his plan, are crucial to having a successful pre-K program that alleviates poverty. If these components are lacking, the program will not realize its full potential and certainly will not be as effective in reducing income inequality.
            On the other hand, extensive research – combined with the case studies aforementioned – show universal pre-K to be a solid national investment. In fact, it would reduce income inequality if it incorporated the proper ingredients. Early childhood education experts Halley Potter, Katie Hamm, and Steven Barnett, in research that was summarized by U.S. News and World Report recently, all concluded in their studies that universal pre-K is an investment with positive long-term gains with regards to income inequality. For instance, Hamm wrote that, “research show[s] that high-quality preschool programs…lead to…better employment and wages” but she, as well as Potter and Barnett, concluded that a national universal pre-K program would be wildly successful in reducing such inequality only if the program was socioeconomically diverse and, as Barnett described it, “adhere[d] to a few standards that typify the most effective programs,” including having high-quality teachers. [34] As such, according to the Center for Public Education, “core requirements for [pre-K] program success include: highly trained teachers…and a policy of low child-staff ratios and class sizes,” further indicating that it is these characteristics that make a program particularly worthwhile if one of the goals is to reduce income inequality. [35] Ultimately, though, strong financing is also key to success because, as the National Institute for Early Education Research found, underfunding risks seriously undermining the ability of a pre-K program to succeed.[36]
            Therefore, President Obama’s proposal for universal pre-K could be extremely successful in reducing income inequality nationwide. In fact, Obama’s proposal includes high teacher standards, open access to many by guaranteeing pre-K to poor and lower middle-class kids but expanding Head Start to include more middle-class Americans thus facilitating socioeconomic diversity, a dedicated financing mechanism of higher taxes on wealthy families, and the incorporation of long class days and small class sizes. [37] Consequently, since the President’s proposal features those components that both aforementioned research and successful pre-K programs show to be effective in slashing poverty, it will likely be successful in reducing income inequality. The Center for American Progress, in describing a plan identical to Obama’s proposal, published an analysis that found the proposed universal pre-K program – which costs $98 billion over a decade – would, in fact, reduce income inequality and deliver large returns for the money initially spent on it.[38] The gains seen for low-income and middle-income Americans in the establishment of a national universal pre-K program show us that it is a wise investment for ourselves, for our economy, and for our future.

[1] “Fact Sheet: President Obama’s Plan for Early Childhood Education for All Americans,” The White House, accessed October 21, 2014,
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] “Fact Sheet: President Obama’s Plan for Early Childhood Education for All Americans.”
[5] Urban Childhood Institute, “Pre-K Matters,”
[6] “Universal pre-K,” What Works for Health: Policies and Programs to Improve Women’s Health, accessed October 24, 2014,
[7] Jacob, Brian & Ludwig, Jens, “Improving educational outcomes for poor children,” (National Bureau of Economic Research, December 2008).
[8] “Universal pre-K: What Works for Health: Policies and Programs to Improve Women’s Health.”
[9] “Fact Sheet: President Obama’s Plan for Early Childhood Education for All Americans.”
[10] W. Steven Barnett, Ph.D, “Getting the Facts Right on Pre-K and the President’s Pre-K Proposal: Policy Report,” (National Institute for Early Education Research, February 25, 2013).
[11] “Early Childhood Education for All: A Wise Investment,” accessed October 24, 2014,
[12] Nancy Folbre, “The Push for Universal Pre-K,” New York Times, September 30, 2013,
[13] James J. Heckman, Ph.D, “The Case for Investing in Disadvantaged Young Children,” (The Heckman Equation, accessed October 24, 2014).
[14] Bryce Covert, “Georgia’s Universal Preschool Program Significantly Improves Children’s Skills,” ThinkProgress, March 10, 2014,
[16] Covert, ThinkProgress.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Urban Child Institute, “Pre-K Matters,” December 2011,
[20] Maria Fitzpatrick, “Starting School at Four,” Stanford University, December 2008.
[21] Georgetown University Center for Research on Children in the U.S., “Effects of Pre-K,” 2008.
[22]Urban Child Institute, “Pre-K Matters,”
[23] Katrina vanden Heuvel, “De Blasio’s Persuasive Case for Universal Pre-K,” Washington Post, October 27, 2014,
[24] Sharon Lerner, “Pre-K on the Range,” The American Prospect, December 4, 2014.
[25] vanden Heuvel, Washington Post.
[26] Nancy Badertscher, “Georgia pre-k teachers not expected to rush back as cuts are partially restored,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 8, 2012,
[27]Michael J. Crossey, “Pa. takes a step backward with Corbett’s education cuts,” PennLive, August 26, 2011,
[28] Frumin, Aliyah, “Obama pushes universal preschool in GA, GOP expresses doubts,”, February 14, 2013,; David Amor, “We have no idea if universal preschool helps kids,” Washington Post, October 21, 2014,
[29] Ibid.
[30] Wogan, J.B., “The Obameter: Expand Early Head Start and Head Start,” Politifact. September 27, 2012.
[31] Edward Zigler, Sally J. Styfco, The Hidden History of Head Start, Oxford University Press (2010).
[32] ONE Campaign’s Results: 2015 Goal - Domestic Education for All,
[33] Zigler, Edward, “Reshaping Early Childhood Intervention to Be a More Effective Weapon Against Poverty,” Annual Convention of the APA, August 20, 1993.
[34] U.S. News and World Report, “Should the Government Fund Universal Pre-K?,”
[35] Center for Public Education.
[36] Eye on Early Education, “NIEER Summarizes Pre-K Research,” March 18, 2013,
[37] Dylan Matthews, “Obama’s pre-K plan,” The Washington Post, February 14, 2013,
[38] Center for American Progress, “A Universal Pre-School Plan,” February 7, 2013,