Barack Obama: A Failing Grade as Party Leader

Those who attain the Office of President of the United States become the titular heads of their respective political parties. Although their major responsibility should be to leave office with a better national society and a world less riven by violence and war, presidents should place their own parties in strengthened positions. President Obama is a rarity, as he has seemed to be in almost perpetual warfare with his own Democratic Party.

Obama’s first term disillusioned many Democrats but it also turned off independents and a segment of Republicans who had seen him as a transformative figure when he campaigned for president in 2008. A major factor in this enthusiasm gap was his dropping of the public option from the Affordable Care Act, after frequently describing it as an important component of any reform.

There are other reasons why many of those who had voted for Obama in November  2008, stayed home in the mid-term election in November 2010: he refused to launch an investigation of high crimes and misdemeanors by high officials of the previous administration; he signaled very early in his administration that he would follow the civil liberty policies  of George W. Bush; he failed to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center in one year as he had promised; he failed to pursue any meaningful penalties, including criminal indictments, for those in Wall Street firms, who had done so much to bring about the economic and financal collaspe that hit full force in late 2008; and he had signaled his intent to support cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Besides the foregoing and other betrayals, those debating whether to go to the polls in November 2010 to give Obama a stronger Democratic hand in Congress, could not have been unaware of the fact that the United States was still involved in two wars, even though Obama had promised a much earlier end to the war in Iraq.

President Obama had also alienated many of his stanchest supporters when his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, had blasted those in the “professional left,” whose purist sentiments had allegedly prevented compromises on several of his major priorities. The reigning narrative story after the November 2008 elections was that many of Obama’s 2008 supporters had callously abandoned him, although it was Obama’s actions in office that had enveloped them in gloom, instead of energizing them.

A seminal Obama promise when he first ran for the presidency was that he would end the Bush tax cuts for individuals earning less than $200,000 and multi-member households earning less than $250,000. Yet, at the end of the year 2010, Obama agreed to a two-year extension of all the Bush tax cuts. Two years later, Obama agreed to extend by $200,000 the threshold for preservation of the cuts — an action that the GOP crowed, preserved 84 percent of Bush’s cuts in taxes.

An enduring distinction between Democrats and Republicans is that the former want to preserve Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in their present configurations and the latter want to privatize Social Security, turn Medicare into a voucher program and reduce Medicaid grants to states. President Obama ruptured the distinction between the two parties by trying to reach a “Grand Bargain” with Speaker John Boehner and has continued to express his support for such a deal.

When President Barack Obama unveiled his FY 2014 budget, one component of it was to base Social Security COL increases on “chained” CPI, which is based on the phenomenon that consumers faced with higher prices will switch to lower-priced items. This proposal was a surprise to those not accustomed to Obama’s frequent changes of positions, because he had previously declared that Social Security was off the table. The GOP took a while to get their sea legs stabilized under them on this issue, but they are now assailing Obama for proposing to cut Social Security benefits. Obama was once again speared for his notorious trait of making  crucial concessions before negotiations had even started. And once again, President Obama has hurt his own party in the run-up to the 2014 elections, without getting the GOP leadership in Congress to agree to any tax increases.

AN ADDENDUM: Chained CPI will most severely hurt the seniors most dependent on Social Security benefits. The effect wil be accumulative, as every COL increase will be added to a lower base. The loss of income will be greatest for those who live to a very old age and those who went on lifetime disability at a very young age.

As for the effect on the Social Security trust fund, chained CPI is projected to have savings of only $130 billion over ten years.

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Needed: No More Presidential Libraries

The dedication of the George W. Bush library brigngs into focus the need to end the practice of each president establishing his own library. These libraries distrort history because no president if going to highlight major failures on his/her watch. Laura Bush has already spoken of the spin Bush supporters will put on the library’s purpose: “It will provide a window to the difficult decisions the president had to make.” Putting the focus on how difficult the decisons were means that you don’t need to explain if the decisions were necessary, were they the right decisions and what were the consequences of these decisions.

Laura Bush has also said that when people wanted helping hands, her husband “gave them his arms.” This statement is directly contrary to what her husband actually did: the two major wars which consumed well over half of the Bush presidency, which have been estimated to  have a long-term cost of between $4 and $6 trillion; the two Bush tax cuts, whih turned a long-term projected surplus inherited from the Clinton tax rate structure into a long-term budgetary deficit — one estimate is that  56 percent of the cuts went to the top five percent of tax filers —  the huge increase in national security spending, which starved the domestic sector; and his attempt after his second term victory to privatize Social Security. So much for Lauri Bush’s contention that her husband gave his arms when people needed helping hands.

Besides the distortion of history implicit in presidential libraries, the citizens of this country and the observing world are likely to be subject to a period of almost totally undiluted tributes to Bush. We experienced this phenomenon when Ronald Reagan died. There was about a week of laudatory tributes to Reagan, with barely a mention of anything that went wrong in his presidency. When veteran newsman, Morley Safer, remarked in  a panel discussion of journalists that there should be a discussion of things that went wrong in Reagan’s presidency, the other journalists chimed in that it was not the time to speak ill of a major political figure. When would be the time to fully evaluate the successes and failures of the Reagan presidency? Would it be at the 50th anniversary of his death? Or the 100th anniversary?

Expect for George Herbert Walker Bush, who gave a short, nonpolitical speech, to all of the former and present presidents who spoke, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars never happened, torture never occurred, the lame respond to Katrina never occurred, the Bush tax cuts were never legislated and the War on Terror was a non-event. Jimmy Carter focused on Bush’s AIDS work and President Obama also mentioned it. Neither president pointed out that the five-year, $15 billion program was significantly underfunded, as, for example, less than $2 billion was provided for the first year’s programed funding of $3.5 billion.

Besides Bush’s AIDS work, Barack Obama alluded to Bush picking up the bullhorn after 9/11; his education work and efforts at immigration reform. Much as the AIDS program, Bush’s only significant education reform, No Child Left Behind, was underfunded and provisions to provide extra funding for failing schools, and allowing students in failing schools to transfer to schools making satisfactory progress have been largely unrealized.

As for immigration reform, Bush took one legislative shot at it and when that failed, it was not a priority policy item for the remainder of his presidency. 

In essence, there wasn’t much in the way of Bush accomplishments for the presidents to hang their hats on, so they had to embellish. In a way, Barack Obama, either consciously or not, acknowledged this, when he gave Bush the faintest of compliments by saying that George W. Bush loved his country and wanted the best for its citizens. In the end, the attending presidents did the country and the world a great disservice by pitching into the ashcan of history the many very destructive actions that Bush bequested to posterity.

Some Distressing Statistics on the Firearms Front

Justifiable homicides by civilians using firearms in US, 2006-10 – FBI (not including Florida).

In states that passed Stand Your Ground in the period; 2006-2010, justifiable homicides went up significantly in every year, starting in 2006. The nearly 160 in 2010 virtually doubled the 80 or so in 2005 (the FBI graph does not give exact numbers). Among the states without Stand Your Ground, the numbers actually went down from what they were in 2001, 2002 and 2003, which were all over 80; in contrast, from 2006 through 2010, the total never reached 80 — the low was about 60 in 2008, in contrast to about 150 in the Stand Your Ground states. [1]

A similar graph done by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for the years 2000-2011 — Stand Your Ground was passed in April 2006 — found that there were about 12 cases of justifiable homicide in the years 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2006. The numbers were about 15 in 2003 and 2005, with 2004 registering about 8; however, in all years 2007 through 2011, the number never dropped below 36 and spiked to about 46 in 2011. [2] 

Trend Lines of Firearms and Population Growth

In the United States in 1994, there were about 200 million firearms for a population of roughly 260 million. Since the rate of firearms growth  is steeper than the rate of population growth, by about 2016 the growth lines will intersect and by about 2022 there will be many more firearms than people. [3]

The NRA, Stolen Guns and Expanding Gun Rights

In response to calls by New York’s Mayor Bloomberg and other gun control advocates to stop straw buyer sales and close gun show loopholes, the NRA reached deep into its bag of tricky arguments to claim that such actions would make little difference, since most guns used to commit crimes are stolen — in fact, some 500,000 guns are stolen every year. [4] Yet, the NRA has not supported laws requiring gun owners to report when their weapons go missing. The NRA also does not support laws that seek to limit the sheer number of guns to be lost or stolen, as it fights hard to defeat proposed laws to limit gun sales to one customer per month.

The NRA can take some credit for the expansion of gun rights in very recent times. Oklahoma became the twenty-fifth state to allow people to carry guns openly and Virginia overturned its one-gun-a-month rule. USA Today reported in March 2012 that  a dozen states were considering  laws  that would eliminate requirements that residents obtain permits to carry concealed weapons. [5]

Footnotes

[1] “Up in Gunsmoke,” Mother Jones, July/August 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mark Follman, “One Nation Under the Gun,” Mother Jones, November/December 2012.

[4] Jarrett Murphy, “Fear: The NRA’s Real Firepower,” The Nation, September 10, 2012.

[5] Ibid.

 

 

Why President Obama Lacks Creditability on Gun Control

President Obama made a barn-raising speech on April 8, 2013 in Connecticut about the need to pass the gun control measures he proposed after the mass shooting of five-and six-year olds in Newtown, Connecticut. Obama’s conversion into a gun control advocate has come realtively late in his political career, as he didn’t propose any gun control measures in his 2008 campaign for the presidency and his only promise to do something about the matter came in the wake of the shooting in a Tucson, Arizona shopping mall, resulting in six deaths and the severe impairment of Representative Gabby Giffords. Obama said he would take action and then forgot about it through the remainder of his first term.

Mass shootings and high levels of gun violence have been constants in the U.S. for many years, yet President Obama has not used his bully pulpit to educate the public about the nature of the gun problem, nor what should be done about it. His Johnny-come-lately appearance on the gun control scene weakens his ability to get anything concrete done.

What Obama is proposing will have limited impact on the overall firearms violence problem, since most acts of firearms violence are not committed by those diagnosed with mental illnesses related to violent acts, nor are they committed by ex-felons. Background checks, limits on the size of ammunition clips and a ban on assault rifles may limit the carnage from mass shootings, but these actions will probably not have a significant effect on the less sensational shootngs that occur on a daily basis.

The failed Senate bill on background checks did not include sales between individuals, so, even if the gun show loophole were closed, what would prevent two individuals who met at a gun show from going out to the parking lot, or elsewhere, to complete a firearms sale first discussed on the gun show premises? Furthermore, the Brady law has shown that reporting of mental illnesses tends to be very sketchy.

Regarding an assault rifle ban, although Senator Diane Feinstein’s bill closes some loopholes in the prior ban, she admits that well over a thousand types of firearms would not be affected by her proposed ban.

I believe the Senate bill would have banned ammunition clips holding more than ten shells. Why not ban clips holding four or more shells. as it is hard to imagine a situation in which more shells would be needed?

President Obama’s proposals and Senator Feinstein’s assault weapons ban are directed mostly at longguns; however, the handgun is, by far, the most deadly instrument of firearms violence. Banning the manufacture and importation of handguns and handgun parts, coupled with a buyback program, which pays a premium over the retail price for a weapon turned in the first year of the buyback period, then lowers the payback for each year the turnin is delayed, should lower the handgun inventory. For someone found to have a handgun after the end of the five- to ten-year buyback period, a stiff fine — maybe $2,000 to $3,000 — would be levied.

The same type of program could be instituted for semi-automatic rifles. Hunters could enjoy their sport with one- or two-barrel shotguns and bolt-action rifles, in which the bolt must be worked to eject and load a new shell.

A limited type of manufacture would be allowed for law enforcement and military purposes.

Highest Officials Bore Ultimate Responsibility for Torture

Earlier this week an 11-member task force, assembled by the Constitution Project think tank, issued a 577-page report, which concluded that the highest U.S. officials bore ultimate responsibility for the “indisputable” use of torture and it urged the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility by the end of 2014.  The task force concluded that there never has been “the kind of considered and detailed discussion that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisors on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.”

The task force deemed indefinite detention “abhorrent” and “intolerable.”

A clash between guards and prisoners at Gitmo a few days ago and the release of harrowing accounts by inmates about force-feeding has thrown a harsh spotlight on the predicament of the inmates, being held without trial for more than a decade. Military officials say there are 43 prisoners currently on a hunger strike, or just under 25 percent of the 166 prisoners still being held.

One of those on a hunger strike is Samir Naji al Hasan Mogbel. Samir was captured in Yemen and has been in Gitmo for 11 years and three months. In an unclassified call to his lawyers, Samir said that if he refuses to be forced into a chair and be tied up, an E.R.F. (Extreme Reaction Force) team — usually consisting of eight military police — is summoned to beat him up. The alternative is to submit to “painful force-feeding.” He told his lawyers that during one force-feeding, a tube was pushed 18 inches into his stomach, causing extreme pain; also, after one insertion of an IV, he was left in that state for 26 hours.

Samir claims that there is so much necerssary force-feeding that the staff can hardly keep up. He once was fed at 11 p.m., after he had fallen asleep. 

Samir puts his weight at 132 pounds, having lost 30 pounds since he went on the hunger strike. He told his lawyers of two other hunger strikers, one weighing 77 pounds and the other 98 pounds.

Both the Constitution Project task force and the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross have termed force-feeding a “form of abuse.”

Geriatric Prisoners Are Burdening Cash-Strapped Governments

Roughly one in six of the 1.5 million state and federal prison inmates is 50 or older and their numbers are growing at seven times the rate of the total prison population. Long-term incarceration is said to add 10 years to a prisoner’s physical age. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that by 2030, about a third of all prisoners will be over age 50. [1]

Acording to the Pew Center on the States, bewtween 1990 and 2009 the average length of a prison stay increased in 42 states. In Florida, the length of time served for drug crimes went up 194 percent over the same time period. Currently, one in ten state prisoners is a lifer and about one in ten federal prisoners over 50 is serving 30 years to life. [2]

In Texas, nearly two-thirds of older prisoners are in for non-violent offenses, such as drug possession and property crimes. In the nation as a whole, arrest rates drop to two percent for people who hit 50 and they become almost nil at the age of 65. In contrast, more than ten percent of those aged 20 to 24  get arrested at some point. A study of more than 450 New York inmates sentenced for violent crimes and released as senior citizens, found that over a 13-year period, only eight went back to prison, one for a violent crime. [3]

The ACLU calculates that caring for aged prisoners costs taxpayers some $16 billion annually. We shell out roughly $68,000 a year for each inmate over age 50, about twice what it costs to keep a younger prisoner locked up. [4]

Bob Hood, former warden of the federal correctional complex in Florence, Colorado, says he had inmates in whom a total cost of $100,000 a year was on the low side. Hood warns that we will need to “retrofit every prison in America to put assisted-living units in it, wheelchair accessibility, handicapped toilets, grab bars — the whole nine yards.”

As for remedial solutions for the aging prisoner population in the United States, there is not much to show. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have geriatric release programs; other states have provisions for medical or compassionate releases, although they are rarely granted. [5] And the big question remains: to where are medically needy prisoners released?

Obama Not Coming Clean on Drone Strikes

The Obama administration has said that strikes by the CIA’s missile-firing Predator and Reaper drones are authorized only against “specific operational leaders of al Qaeda  and associated forces” involved in the 9/11 terror attacks, who are plotting “imminent” attacks on Americans. President Obama has said, “It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative.” Furthermore, in a September 6, 2012 interview with CNN, Obama said, “It has to be a situation in which we can’t capture the individual before they (sic) move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States.”

Copies of top-secret intelligence reports reviewed by McClatchy newspapers show that drone strikes in Pakistan over a four-year period didn’t adhere to those standards. Reports list killings of alleged Afghan insurgents, whose organizations were not on the list of terrroist groups at the time of 9/11; of suspected members of Pakistan’s extremist groups that didn’t exist in September 2011; and of unidentified individuals described as “other militants” and/or “foreign fighters.”

Micala Zenko, an expert with the Council of Foreign Relations, accuses the U.S. of “misleading the public about the scope of who can be legitimately targeted.” It is also the case that drone operators aren’t always sure whom they are targeting.

The Obama administration has never acknowledged the use of so-called “signature strikes,” in which unidentified individuals are killed after surveillance shows behavior the U.S. government associates with terrorists — such as being present when ammunition is being loaded or unloaded from a truck. The administration has not revealed details, such as the intelligence used to select targets and how much evidence is needed to place an individual on a CIA “kill list.”