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Monday, February 17, 2014

Happy Presidents' Day!

Ever since I was little, I've been fascinated by the office of the presidency of the United States. The institution of the presidency is an incredible one because it is an awesome force that can be used for incredible good or incredible bad with tremendous power over the globe centralized into the hands of one individual. Our country's best presidents were those who utilized this power to maximize good for citizens around the world, whether it was Abraham Lincoln, signing the Emancipation Proclamation and ultimately backing the abolition of slavery, or FDR, marshaling through Congress the New Deal and leading the U.S. to an Allied victory in World War II. The worst presidents did precisely the opposite: using the powers of the office for personal satisfaction or being terribly incompetent in management of the executive branch. These include Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's horrid successor, and Warren G. Harding, arguably the laziest president.

For better and for worse, the power of the presidency has only expanded over time, in both domestic and foreign affairs. In the domestic arena, the president's authority to sign executive orders, faithfully execute federal laws, and set the agenda through the power of the 'bully pulpit' gives him or her enormous advantages over the other branches of government. In foreign affairs, the president's expansive power as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, combined with his stature as the representative of the United States to the global stage, is continuously growing.

Given these realities, it is incumbent upon Barack Obama and his successors to use this awesome power for good. Exercising such a mission should mean fulfilling one of the core promises of the Constitution: using the power of the federal government to "promote the general welfare" of the people.    The president's array of recent executive actions is a fine example of this type of power. President Obama recently raised the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour, perfectly within his authority as the head of the federal government, and oversaw the FCC's effort to expand broadband nationwide to kids in schools across the U.S. The result of these actions will be increased prosperity, stronger economic growth, and a more robust middle class.

In the end, this notion is tied to the question that presidents should ask themselves upon leaving office: how did I use the power when I had it? It is an awesome opportunity to possess the incredible power of the presidency and it should be the duty of each president to be able to answer that question in a way that indicates he or she did what he or she could to sizably improve the lives of Americans, and people around the world, for the better. It is often debated whether presidents make history or whether history makes the president. Those presidents who have used the power of the office to maximize good, and to expand opportunity and prosperity, have been the ones who have helped shape and make history. The presidents that go above and beyond the call of duty in "promoting the general welfare," as the Constitution phrases it, are those we hold in highest esteem as well. For example, that is what FDR did when he signed the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act into law -- pieces of legislation that he did not politically need to sign given that the task he was elected for was to correct the Depression through emergency, temporary public works programs. Roosevelt though decided he wanted to change the course of history and fundamentally reshape the social safety net. We're a better country today because of this use of presidential power. We need bold, activist leadership like that from the presidency for the sake of economic well-being and prosperity for the people. In the long run, both the country, and the legacy of a president who answers the call for using power for maximum good, will be stronger because of it. Happy Presidents' Day!

MY PRESIDENTS LISTS...

TOP TEN PRESIDENTS:
1. Abraham Lincoln
2. Franklin D. Roosevelt
3. George Washington
4. Theodore Roosevelt
5. Thomas Jefferson
6. Woodrow Wilson
7. Lyndon B. Johnson
8. Barack Obama
9. John F. Kennedy
10. Harry Truman

TEN WORST PRESIDENTS:
1. Andrew Johnson
2. James Buchanan
3. Franklin Pierce
4. Waren G. Harding
5. Millard Fillmore
6. John Tyler
7. Rutherford B. Hayes
8. Herbert Hoover
9. Calvin Coolidge
10. George W. Bush

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Cultural Significance of The Beatles

February 9 marked 50 years since The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in front of 73 million American TV viewers and forever changed the history of music. The Beatles though, in that performance and beyond, changed more than just music. They and their brand were far more significant in their impact on American culture and public life. The Beatles served as the perfect transition between the structural, ordered nature of the 1950s and the counterculture heyday of the late 1960s and the 1970s.

Their embrace of love, lyrical tributes to the beauties and disappointments in relationships, and seemingly out of this world hairstyles and unique live performances that brought girls to their knees (literally) were part of a much needed cultural jolt. The music, style, and attitude of The Beatles liberalized the culture, enthused young Americans with newfound energy, and celebrated free expression and artistic creativity. Perhaps it is not so surprising that I have this feeling since not only I am a huge Beatles fan but I am also a Democrat and as President Clinton perfectly put it a decade ago, "if you think the 60s were a bad time, you're probably a Republican; if you think the 60s were a good time, you're probably a Democrat."

In the process, The Beatles also helped Americans cope with the struggles, sadness, and sorrow of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, who perished just three months before the Fab Four appeared on Ed Sullivan's stage. As young Americans lost an icon who connected to them in a deeply personal and fundamental way, they then found in The Beatles new icons with whom they could easily identify. This generation yearned to be free-spirited, rebellious, and emotionally charged. John, Paul, George, and Ringo gave them that chance more than anyone else in the public eye at the time.

Further, as protests against the Vietnam War grew in the late 60s and much of the youth of America turned to sex, drugs, and countercultural attitudes that offended Richard Nixon's so-called "silent majority," The Beatles led the way and reflected those feelings. Both in their songs and in their appearance, they shifted to a more psychedelic nature, best seen in the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, that essentially communicated to this generation that they should embrace and expand their freedom to be who they are without fear.

Ultimately, The Beatles did not just launch a revolution in the music industry. They also helped fundamentally transform and reshape American culture more broadly. Paul McCartney himself acknowledged this reality in a recent CBS Grammy tribute to the band as he told the audience that so many Americans told him personally that the Ed Sullivan appearance changed their lives. Cheers to The Beatles.