A happy Labor Day, after all…

As an immigrant and a recent citizen, I will cast my first presidential vote in November. I have looked forward to this for quite a while although this sad, even depressing, campaign hasn’t been the kind of campaign that I had hoped for. And my choice is clear: Hillary Clinton — Trump’s America is not my America.

Today, on Labor Day, I realized that all is not doom and gloom. At the traditional Labor Day Parade in Kensington, the next town over from my home town of Silver Spring in the Maryland suburbs just north of Washington, DC, thousands had come out in the beautiful weather. There was excitement and optimism in the air; good people are running for office, among them my Congressman, Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat who is running for the U.S. Senate to succeed retiring Barbara Mikulski, and State Senator Jamie Raskin, also a Democrat, who is trying to succeed Van Hollen in the U.S. House of Representatives. Their campaigns are important parts of this year’s overall political campaign and their outcomes are almost as important as the race for the White House in determining what kind of America we will have after November.

Van Hollen and Raskin

Van Hollen and Raskin both handily won their respective Democratic primaries in April and their victories in November, although not guaranteed, of course, are highly likely in this Democratic state. Van Hollen, the son of a foreign service officer, was born in Karachi, Pakistan. A progressive with lots of foreign policy experience and knowledge, he has been in Congress since 2003 — the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, and part of the Democratic leadership team. Raskin, a law professor at the local American University, has been in the State Senate since 2006, where he has been a leading voice on many liberal issues: marriage equality, repeal of the death penalty, gun control, climate change, medical marijuana, campaign finance reform.

They are smart and hard-working and their hearts are in the right place. They will be great additions to the U.S. Congress, which, god knows, needs all the help it can get.

Few bright spots for the Democrats as America voted Republican

Well, that was really depressing.

Only in Minnesota, and a few other bright spots around the country, did the Democrats win, or even put up a good fight in yesterday’s Republican landslide. Even in Democratic strongholds, like Massachusetts and Maryland, the voters elected new Republican governors. Southern Democratic Senators trying to get reelected failed, like Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Kay Hagan in North Carolina. Only Mark Warner in Virginia held on, barely…

The next US Senate will have a comfortable Republican majority, and the least sympathetic of all American politicians, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, will be the new majority leader. He was the one — remember ? — who set as his primary goal at the start of the first Obama Administration to make sure that America’s first African American president would only serve one term. Well, Obama was reelected in 2012 and McConnell remained minority leader. Now, McConnell plus House Speaker John Boehner in charge of an even larger Republican majority in the House of Representatives, will have to work with President Obama if anything is to get done in the new Congress.

Don’t hold your breath! The Republican majorities in Congress contain more conservatives and more Tea party sympathizers, who now see even less reason to work with the President. If they turn cooperative, it will be a first after years of Republican obstruction, including a government shutdown, for which, apparently, and remarkably, the American voters have rewarded them while at the same time — and completely illogically — bitterly complaining about the gridlock in Washington.

They give Congress embarrassingly low approval ratings — even lower than the President — and then vote them back in power, stronger than before. Figure that one out!

Actually, and once again, the American voters have shown how negative they are towards the government, not only this government but government in general. They want a weak government and with yesterday’s outcome they have assured themselves of that.

I mentioned Minnesota in the beginning, where I have recently spent quite a bit of time, and although Minnesota’s voters reelected all the top Democratic candidates, Governor Mark Dayton, Senator Al Franken, the State Auditor, the Attorney General, as well as all five Democratic members of the US Congress, and elected a new Democratic Secretary of State, the voters turned their back on the Democratic Farmer Labor Party’s (DFL) candidates for the State House of Representatives. The Democrats’ majority of 73 to 61 for the last two years will switch to a solid Republican majority, 72 to 62,  in the next House, while the Democrats keep their majority in the Senate, which is not up for reelection until 2016.

So, also in Minnesota, the voters chose change, to end, as they put it, the “single-party DFL rule.” It’s the fourth time in ten years that the majority in the House has changed hands. And, just like in Washington, the ability to govern, to get results, to move the country forward, has been weakened. In that sense, the voters in Minnesota were no different than the voters in the rest of America.

The outcome does not bode well for America in the next two years.

Finally, simple majority democracy has come to the Senate

It’s been called the “nuclear option,” presumably because a decision to change the filibuster rules of the U.S. Senate would be so big, so historic and politically so consequential.

And today’s decision IS a huge deal, as Ezra Klein in his Wonkblog in the Washington Post explains. Most of all, the decision by the Democratic majority in the Senate is about democracy. Tired of the Republican minority’s obstructionist behavior through the filibuster, which has paralyzed the upper body of the U.S. Congress, the Democrats, with 52 votes to 48, said enough! Three Democrats, Carl Levin of Michigan, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Pryor of Arkansas voted with the Republicans, while the two Independents, Angus King of Maine and Bernard Sanders of Vermont, supported the Democrats.

Finally, simple majority will rule in the US Senate, just like it should in a democracy and just like it does in other democracies, whether the political power lies with a majority of twenty votes or one.  A majority is a majority.

The filibuster rule, that it takes 60 votes for decisions in the Senate, is not a written rule. It is not in the Constitution, and it was for decades seldom used. However, from 1967 to 2012, according to the Congressional Research Service cited by the Washington Post, majority leaders had to file motions to try to break a filibuster of a judicial nominee 67 times — and 31 of those, more than 46 percent — occurred in the five years with Obama in the White House and a Democratic majority, although not a 60-vote super majority, in the Senate.

The filibuster rule change means that the President’s federal judge nominees and executive-office appointments now can be confirmed by a simple majority rather than by the super majority that has been required for more than two centuries. However, there are two important exception: it will still take 60 votes to confirm a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court and the filibuster can still be used on legislation.

Words of approval from the White House were heard after the vote.  Now, President Obama can get his three nominees approved to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, often called the second most powerful federal court in the country. From   the Republicans in the Senate only howls of protests were heard.

“It’s time to change. It’s time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete,” said the Senate’s Democratic majority leader Harry Reid.

Yes, it was the right thing to do!

Hey, Congressman, your vote does have consequences

Today, I drove my cousin and his wife down to the National Mall in Washington, DC.  It was a sad an empty sight, with barriers in front of the monuments and museums and barely a  tourist soul in sight. The government is shut down. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees are forced to stay home, without pay. Washington, DC is practically closed.

But in the middle of this, Texas Republican congressman Randy Neugebauer visiting the Mall had the audacity to verbally attack a Park Service ranger in front of the closed World War II Memorial, saying that the Park Service should be ashamed of itself.

Hello! In what world does congressman Neugebauer live? Hey, there are consequences for how you vote, Congressman, at least in a democracy. But Neugebauer does not seem to understand that. The reason the National Mall is deserted today is that you and the other Republicans in Congress are sore losers. You lost on Obamacare. You lost in the Supreme Court. And you lost in last year’s elections, which came pretty close to being a referendum on Obamacare.

Have you never heard of majority rule? The minority never rules. That’s what voting and democracy are all about, and that is what really makes this present political stalemate so scary, well, such a scandal.  If you want to go out and overturn Obamacare, congressman Neugebauer, go out and win an election. That’s how it works!

As Tom Friedman wrote in yesterday’s New York Times, “the future of how we govern ourselves is at stake…”you can’t just put a fiscal gun to the country’s head.”

“It takes one’s breath away…”

Here is Norm Ornstein, eminent political scholar, on the Republican efforts in Congress to sabotage Obamacare — “it is simply unacceptable, even contemptible…and it takes one’s breath away.”

“But to do everything possible to undercut and destroy its implementation—which in this case means finding ways to deny coverage to many who lack any health insurance; to keep millions who might be able to get better and cheaper coverage in the dark about their new options; to create disruption for the health providers who are trying to implement the law, including insurers, hospitals, and physicians; to threaten the even greater disruption via a government shutdown or breach of the debt limit in order to blackmail the president into abandoning the law; and to hope to benefit politically from all the resulting turmoil—is simply unacceptable, even contemptible. One might expect this kind of behavior from a few grenade-throwing firebrands. That the effort is spearheaded by the Republican leaders of the House and Senate—even if Speaker John Boehner is motivated by fear of his caucus, and McConnell and Cornyn by fear of Kentucky and Texas Republican activists—takes one’s breath away.”

There are scandals, and then there are real scandals…

The Republicans are smelling blood. Finally, after four years of a scandal free Obama first term, they seem to say, we got him!

And they can’t help themselves, comparing Obama to Nixon, who resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal – now that was a real scandal! – and suggesting that Obama should be impeached…

The Washington Post main editorial today is pretty good, although comparing Obama to Nixon is not only “silly,” it is really stupid. I have for quite a while lamented the trend of the Post’s editorials becoming more and more neocon in its views on foreign policy, particularly on Syria and the Middle East, but here the paper is right on the money:

  • The Benghazi talking points scandal is “no scandal whatsoever,” but there was “no cover up” and “no conspiracy” to deceive the American people.
  • The broad search of telephone records among AP’s reporters went way too far, but there is no record that Obama knew anything about this.
  • The IRS targeting of Tea party groups is “horrifying and inexcusable,” but there is no evidence of White House knowledge or instigation of this practice.

Second term presidents often seem to get into trouble…must be something in the water in the White House. But this is not Watergate nor is it Iran-contra. They were real scandals.

Still, of course, this won’t go away.  The Republicans want to nail the president, but in their desperate eagerness, they are overreaching, “making a political circus” of the tragedy in Benghazi, as Philadelphia Inquirer’s Trudy Rubin recently wrote. The real scandal, she continued, is how the Republicans are “dishonoring” the memory of the four dead Americans in Benghazi.

This is no way to run a government…

You often hear, “this is no way to run…,” a business, a theater, a team, a school, and, yes, a government.

In today’s political mess in Washington, DC, this saying is most certainly true – this is no way to run a government!

Because of the scandalous inability of the political parties in the nation’s capital, from the White House to Congress, we don’t have a budget, we can’t agree on the simple and, yes, completely sensible notion, that the country’s economic problems after the worst economic recession since the Great Depression in the 1930s, need to be solved and that they can only be solved through savings, new revenues, and, very importantly, new investments to create jobs in order to make a substantial dent in unemployment, which, hovering around 8 percent, is still much too high.

We need a plan. We need action from Washington. But we have neither, because the White House, the Democratic Senate and the Republican House of Representatives cannot agree on anything.  There are many separate plans and the result is deadlock when we all seem to agree that the country needs to push forward, urgently.  Instead, we are standing still, waiting…for what? Godot?  He’ll never come, we know that.

And in these times of deadlock, and waiting, something happened that was never supposed to happen: sequestration. A strange word, which in this case means automatic budget cuts. It came out of the big debt ceiling crisis last year, agreed to by the White House and Congress, and its goal was to force a real budget agreement by way of the so called Super Committee – remember that one? – because sequestration — the automatic budget cuts — were so harsh that neither side wanted them.

But here they are — 85 billion dollars’ worth of cuts only this year — in health, transportation, social services, defense – starting this week, across the board, with no priorities. Unbelievable.

It is, indeed, a sad verdict of the state of affairs in today’s Washington, DC, where the ideological battle is fiercer than ever and where the word “bipartisanship” has become a dirty word.   There is blame to go around, for everyone.  Obviously, President Obama, who entered the White House four years ago with bipartisanship as a main message, has now given up on this. His message is now one of a “balanced approach” to the country’s economic woes, meaning cuts, but also new revenues.  He won the election on that message and he has continued to take it to the American people, who, according to the polls, support him, but not by much.

Meanwhile, the Republicans, who had to agree back in January on the first tax hikes in over two decades, are saying no to any new revenues.  No more. All they want to do now is to cut, cut, cut – the only thing they agree on. But it is strongly felt and the party seems united behind this main message.  So, even though the automatic budget cuts include serious cuts for Pentagon, which is ordinarily anathema to the Republicans, they have decided to accept them, all in the name of spending cuts and savings.

Their goal is to balance the budget by 2023 – without any new taxes.  That’s not economically realistic, and, on top of that, it’s politically risky, because it will mean cuts in extremely popular programs like Medicare and Social Security. Will the Republicans be able take the political heat that such proposals will bring? That’s highly unclear.

Now, the good thing here is that this will never happen, because the Senate, controlled by the Democrats, will never agree to it, and, even if they did, Obama would veto it. But where will this lead us? To one crisis deadline after another as the frustration in the nation grows and as the economy continues to limp along, when it could do so much better.

As I said, this is no way to run a government…

It’s “Nordic Cool” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC

Yes, it’s big and Nordic and it kicks off tonight for a whole month with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of the Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo and with Danish soprano Inger Dam-Jensen performing Nordic music by Sibelius, Alfvén, Grieg, Leif and Nielsen.Nordic Cool 2013

Never before, neither in the U.S. nor in Europe, has such a broad Nordic culture initiative taken place, and in this case it was a Kennedy Center’s initiative, with support from the five Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland).

– Yes, it’s really exciting and a great opportunity for the Nordic countries to showcase what is best in Nordic culture, said Swedish Minister of Culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth at a press briefing today at the Swedish Embassy, ​​House of Sweden, here in Washington, DC.

All the Nordic countries, plus Greenland and the Faroe Islands, have turned up in full force with all they have to offer in music, theater, film, food, dance, architecture, art and design. From Sweden, except for the Royal Philharmonics, there is the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s production of “Fanny and Alexander”, performances by Anne Sofie von Otter, workshops on Nordic literature, not the least detective novels, and films like Jan Troell’s newest, “The Last Sentence.”

It will be interesting to see how this major Nordic venture is received by the American audiences. In any case, it’s a great chance for them to learn a lot about what makes northern Europe tick, and to tick so successfully.

Cool.

Obama on guns — and his State of the Union finally took off

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union last night was not, I am afraid, a speech to be long remembered.  It was good, but ordinary, although at the same time “extraordinarily ambitious,” as Ezra Klein writes on his Wonkblog:

“Imagine, for a moment, that President Obama managed to pass every policy he proposed tonight. Within a couple of years, every four-year-old would have access to preschool. The federal minimum wage would be at $9 — higher than it’s been, after adjusting for inflation, since 1981. There’d be a cap-and-trade program limiting our carbon emissions and a vast infrastructure investment to upgrade our roads and bridges. Taxes would be higher, guns would be harder to come by, and undocumented immigrants would have a path to citizenship. America would be a noticeably different country.”

That is unlikely to happen, as Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus writes, but if Obama meets his most significant and realistic goals – “immigration reform, even modest steps on gun control, an end to the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan, a free-trade agreement with Europe and, oh yes, implementation of Obamacare — and manages to keep the economy growing, even if slowly, that’s not a bad list. Plenty of two-term presidents have done worse.”

What Obama mentioned in his speech is clearly popular with the American public, according to Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky but “the Republicans just sat there like statues ignoring” them. They are such crybabies every day about what Obama allegedly does to try to make them look bad. They’re doing plenty well at that themselves.”

“Long gone,” writes The New Yorker’s John Cassidy on his blog Rational Irrationality “is the era when he (Obama) treated Republicans as reasonable men and women with whom he could do business. Nowadays, he is in permanent campaign mode. With the ongoing dispute over taxes and spending still far from decided, he is intent on rallying his supporters whilst depicting his opponents as crazed ideologues and craven defenders of the privileges enjoyed by the ultra-rich. “

Well, ok. Still, in my view Obama’s fifth State of the Union never really took off until the end and when the subject was guns and gun control. “They deserve a vote,” Obama repeated time and again:

“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote; the families of Newtown deserve a vote; the families of Aurora deserve a vote; the families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”

“Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country.  Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight.  But we were never sent here to be perfect.”

And the President returned to his them from the Inauguration about inclusiveness, about “us” and “we.”

”The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem.  They don’t expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue.  But they do expect us to put the nation’s interests before party.  They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can.  For they know that America moves forward only when we do so together; and that the responsibility of improving this union remains the task of us all.”

Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker thinks that Obama’s urgent message that “they deserve a vote” may come to serve “as the rallying cry for 2013,”  and so “if last night was any indication, the two years to come will be far more confrontational. “

So, no political peace is to be expected in Washington.  But Obama, a much different and more self-confident President than in his first term,  got to say his peace, and he made his troops happy.

It’s “we” and “together” in Obama’s inclusive America

President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address today was all about ”we,” and ”we, the people,” about ”equality” and ”together.”  It was a clear and straight forward statement by the re-elected president about his view of America, a liberal/progressive view in an inclusive America  — a country for everyone.

The speech was elegant, inspiring, and passionate, given by someone who looked forward to his second term in the White House with renewed strength and great self-confidence, and it was the highlight of a most festive day in Washington, DC, where the crowds were not as large as four years ago, when almost two million people jammed The National Mall in spite of very chilly weather. But they were just as enthusiastic, clearly cherishing the moment that America’s first black president had been re-elected and handed the nation’s trust for another four years.

The president talked about America’s “never-ending journey” and that so much is remains to be done.

”Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people…This is our generation’s ask – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life and Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American.

The speech was an unabashed re-affirmation of Obama’s basic liberal political philosophy, saying that  ”preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

He was full of hope and faith in America, if the nation stuck together:

“America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it—so long as we seize it together.”

He talked about equal pay for women, equal treatment for gays, right to vote for everyone,  about the importance of social security, Medicare and Medicaid, the right of immigrants, and about gun control, without mentioning the word but referring to the ”quite lanes of Newtown” and keeping the nation’s children ”safe from harm.”

“We, the people,  still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit;  but we reject the belief that America must choose between the caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”

Obama’s second inaugural address was free of political attacks and party politics. It contained no direct attacks on the Republicans, but, on the other hand, one could interpret the whole speech as Obama putting down his marker, that this is what he believes in, this is his America, and this is what he is going to fight for during his second term.

The details in his political program will come in his State of the Union address to Congress on February 12. That will also likely mark the continuation of Washington’s political battle. Will that fight be as merciless as before today’s inauguration? Probably, and maybe even more so… But, at least it is now totally clear where Barack Obama stands, and that feels liberating.