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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

In Enthusiastic State of the Union, Obama Seeks to Cement Legacy of Effective Progressive Activism

Stymied by dysfunction in a Congress led by a Republican House majority which shut down the government and continually threatens to default on our debt, President Obama conveyed understandable frustration with the logjam in Washington but demonstrated an enthusiasm for rising above that gridlock to enact good public policy on his own. Utilizing the rhetorical loftiness, inspirational oratory, and empathetic earnestness that made him appealing as a candidate in 2008 and 2012, the President demonstrated the confident and concerned leadership for working people that public opinion polling indicates Americans are seeking in him. Further, Obama's robust defense of the ability of government to work for the interests of working families, instead of standing in their way with pointless exercises such as voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, was a welcomed embrace of progressivism that indicates an understanding from the White House that this year is the last best chance for the President to leave behind a firmly activist legacy.

It's true that Obama has already achieved a tremendous deal in his first several years in office. He shed light on some of those accomplishments in his address, including, most notably, the patient protections and expansion of health insurance in Obamacare. However, he still needs to do more to both protect the accomplishments of the first term while also paving the path for a truly sustained economic recovery that lifts the economic well-being of working class and middle class families. After all, the latter is arguably the reason why Barack Obama was elected president in the first place, defeating John McCain amid a financial crisis that threatened to plunge the country into a second depression. The administration is seemingly aware of this fact as Obama told The New Yorker's David Remnick that he wanted to be judged on whether he increased ladders of opportunity for the middle class. Political pundits lamented though that President Obama sounded defeated, tired, and downtrodden in Remnick's piece about the prospects of his final years. If anything, tonight's address should have put those doubts to rest.

The President appeared keenly aware that this moment is the perfect chance to seize the opportunity to be the happy warrior for American working families that someone like Hubert H. Humphrey was. The State of the Union address was a spirited manifesto of progressive principles such as lessening income inequality, protecting voting rights, expanding educational opportunities, and reforming the immigration system. Progressives have yearned for Obama to focus on these issues and in emphasizing these subjects tonight, the President implicitly nodded to his base that he wants to make their signature issues the core of his legacy. On policy and political grounds, Obama is on firm footing here. Despite President Obama's lackluster job approval rating, the policies he pushed during his address are enormously popular thus increasing the likelihood that members of Congress facing reelection this year will support them. In terms of the impact of these policies on the broader economy, scores of economists have recently come out for increasing the minimum wage, a broad range of research indicates immigration reform would boost job creation while reducing the deficit, and law enforcement, education reform advocates, business leaders, and other groups have all come together to support universal pre-K as a necessary downpayment for future economic productivity. In order for Obama to both regain his credibility with the public as an effective champion for working people and leave behind a legacy of popular progressive activism, it was crucial that he make a confident case for these policies.

Further, reestablishing trust with the public that Obama can be a strong leader who cares about middle class people and seeking to establish a productive, progressive legacy -- both of which are fronts on which voters have been losing faith in the president -- are goals that the President did his best to achieve tonight in one key way: immediate executive action. On many levels, executive actions like the ones he outlined tonight are a wise route to take. Recent public opinion polling showed 52 percent support for taking executive action if Congress is unproductive, the President had been losing points on showing strong leadership, the areas in which the White House announced new executive action were ones in which it was increasingly clear Congress was unwilling to take action, and, unlike what some conventional wisdom demonstrates, the executive actions might actually ratchet up pressure on Congress to take legislative action on those issues because the President will seem productive vs. a lackluster legislature. As such, President Obama took the initiative on several issues on his own, most notably raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour; the broader effort to raise the minimum wage for all Americans to that level is extremely popular, and economically effective according to recent studies of the Economic Policy Institute, so Obama is on solid ground here. Ultimately, that's where he was throughout the night, demonstrating the optimistic, energetic, and aggressive leadership that the public wants and needs. Now is not the time for timidity and the President seems to agree.


Friday, January 24, 2014

Follow My Roommate's Blog

Since today is National Compliments Day, it is only fitting that I offer a compliment to a friend. My roommate since August 2012, Kyle Menyhert -- a fellow brother of Sigma Nu and someone I've been friends with since the very beginning of our time at GW -- recently launched a blog of his own, entitled Mind of Menyhert, that is quite good. The blog posts he's published so far are intelligent, diverse, insightful, and entertaining. I highly recommend Kyle's blog as he takes a look at various issues, from sports to politics, and does so in a fair, nuanced, and honest manner. His blog can be read here: mindofmenyhert.blogspot.com. Happy reading...and happy Friday! The photo on the left by the way is of Kyle, President Obama (sort of), and me. In our view, it very accurately reflects our respective attitudes towards the President. As for my opinion of Mr. Obama, why wouldn't it be positive when news like this is in the headlines. Oh, and, that's another compliment for National Compliments Day. Well done, Mr. President.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

The War on Poverty Worked

Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an "unconditional war on poverty in America." In his January 1964 address to Congress, LBJ underscored his fervent desire to "build more homes, more schools, more libraries, more hospitals," to drastically reduce unemployment, and to provide strong safety nets for the elderly, the disabled, and the nation's poorest citizens. President Johnson's proposals were certainly ambitious given the fact that a vote on Medicare, for instance, had failed during the Kennedy presidency in 1962 by a narrow margin in the Senate. Indeed, much of the agenda Johnson ran on in the 1964 campaign was stymied by southern conservative Democratic senators during his predecessor's tenure. Then, Johnson won in an overwhelming landslide, crushing Barry Goldwater with the largest national popular vote percentage total in modern history: 61 percent of the vote. LBJ had a clear mandate to enact a sweeping agenda of progressive change that would fundamentally reshape American social policy. The domestic legal framework of our social welfare system would never look the same as LBJ sought to launch an aggressive war on poverty. Five decades later, despite the assaults on these efforts from President Nixon and President Reagan and the conservative movement, by almost any metric, the war on poverty has proven a success.

As The History Channel correctly noted in its The Presidents documentary special, LBJ's war on poverty "cut the percentage of those who lived in poverty by half" by the end of his tenure in 1969. It was not until the enactment of Richard Nixon's policies of block-granting, partly dismantling, and devolving federal anti-poverty programs did poverty begin to worsen again. After the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, who blasted the New Deal as having its origins in "fascism," a deemphasizing of the importance of social welfare in public policy led to an increase in income inequality, higher homelessness, and less aid to impoverished areas of the country. Therefore, it is particularly rich to see modern day Republicans like Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Paul Ryan declare that the war on poverty was a failure when it is the policies of their own party that led the war on poverty to become less successful. When politicians pull the rug out from under people struggling to make ends meet, the result is not that they suddenly bounce to joyous financial prosperity. Instead, what happens is that these families spiral into even more abject poverty, their children fall behind as opposed to their more financially stable peers, and the broader economy suffers as some of the minute wealth of these Americans disappears.

On the other hand, when elected officials choose to invest in robust anti-poverty programs that seek to lift people out of hard times, give them a chance to a fair and decent life, and help the economy by giving these individuals the chance to become part of a broader middle class, poverty is reduced, families are ultimately better off, and the country benefits from the success of these Americans. The evidence that this has been the case in the war on poverty is overwhelming. SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that is otherwise known as "food stamps," became what we know it as today during LBJ's tenure. Consequently, according to the most recent Census studies, as many as four million Americans were lifted out of poverty because of SNAP in 2012 . Further, the Recovery Act's 2009 increase in SNAP allocations resulted in a much-needed jolt to the then-suffering economy. Medicare and Medicaid, also creations of the war on poverty, have boosted the livelihoods of millions of senior citizens and low-income families, respectively, who rely on these crucial lifelines to provide for their health insurance which, if these programs did not exist, would be in limbo thanks to the egregiously, historically high costs of private health insurance in the United States. Thanks in part to Medicare, the elderly have gone from being among the most likely groups to fall into poverty, five decades ago, to now being the least likely group. This outcome was a core goal of LBJ and it appears to have been met. Finally, for all the criticisms Head Start has earned, the "bottom line" is, according to a thorough Washington Post analysis early last year, that the LBJ-launched program "produces modest benefits including some longer-term gains for children." Those gains are part of a crucial federal investment in early childhood education which has proven to be key in fostering the cultivation of successful, productive members of society who contribute proactively to economic growth.

Those who dispute these findings are the very same individuals who propose budget blueprints and policy proposals that aim to destroy these programs and, in turn, their ideas do not really reduce poverty as they claim but instead result in making rampant poverty a permanent fixture of American life. That's not the vision LBJ had and thankfully, because of the efforts he and the Democratic Congress of his time launched, even in the face of attacks on this anti-poverty framework, the success is evident in the statistics. "The federal government," The New York Times noted recently, "has succeeded in preventing the poverty rate from climbing far higher...[and] a broad range of researchers...[have] stressed the improvement in the lives of low-income Americans since Mr. Johnson started his crusade." We must recommit ourselves to Lyndon Johnson's cause if we want to take a serious stab at reducing the outrageous levels of income inequality we see today. Thankfully, it appears that President Obama is interested in undertaking that effort. His expansion of SNAP, unemployment insurance, and various tax credits as part of his 2009 federal stimulus law -- though many of these benefits are now expired thanks to recent congressional inaction -- showed he is willing to commit himself and seek out success in fighting poverty. Further, he has even overseen an expansion of Medicaid thanks to his Affordable Care Act and an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program early in his presidency; both of these policies are helping reduce poverty as we speak. This year though, if the President wants to live up to the LBJ legacy of aggressively fighting an "unconditional war on poverty," he must be bold in his State of the Union address like Johnson was 50 years ago and he must follow those words with actions similar to those Johnson took. Indeed, that's the only thing that's ever worked.