An Endorsement With an Asterisk

Written for the Huffington Post, published October 31, 2012:

It felt almost as surreal as it did cold.

I was a shivering, wonderstruck ninth grader. He was just minutes into his turn at the helm of the world’s most powerful engine. Between us were a cement barrier, a military guard, and an armored limousine wall. As the sirens whined, I waved, then he waved back. And then he was gone.

Minutes earlier, I had been on my tip toes, trying to steal a glimpse of the man himself, but my eyesight was too weak, and the podium was obscured among clusters of naked trees. I had laid my feet flat and settled for the megatron.

Now, as the inauguration parade began, I stood on Pennsylvania Avenue and made eye contact with the President of the United States. My innumerable thoughts were drowned out by the cheering thousands behind me and beside me. I had just seen Barack Obama take the oath of office. Now he was looking at me.

I was blissfully unaware. He knew that the celebration would be short.

Nearly four years later, his critics’ words are a thunderclap: “He hasn’t done enough.”

They’re right. It would be irresponsible to claim that President Obama should be reelected exclusively on the merits of what he has accomplished. It seems without doubt that he has not achieved nearly enough; so speak the fractured limbs of a nation still in pain.

But on issue after issue, the Obama administration has moved in the direction of progress, even if it hasn’t yet attained exhaustive success. It is the collection of alternatives — the terrifying nature of what could have been, and what could still be — that amount to a ringing endorsement of President Obama for another term.

Under the belief that Obama should have treaded further on the issues he has undertaken — that he hasn’t done “enough” — it would be counterintuitive for us to veer sharply toward a radical alternative. Progress unfinished is but a puddle of futile hope. If he hasn’t done enough, then let him do more.

Some issues on which Obama has made real headway seem only spoken about in hushed murmurs, eclipsed by Washington’s hyperbole-prone discussion of the favored children of the media — the issues that take up airtime. We are best served not by shouting about how the president has spent money (indeed, he has — and lots of it), but by assessing where and on what he has spent it.

Take, for example, the environmental realm. Experts across the board agree that the president’s deepest failure in the area took the form of a cap-and-trade bill that, had it passed, would have cut the nation’s carbon footprint by 80 percent by 2050. The bill ultimately disappeared in the congressional inferno.

Scarred by legislative burn-marks, President Obama felt the sting of his mistakes. He swiftly issued (by executive order) what the Washington Post recently called “the most sweeping attack on air pollution in U.S. history,” placing severe limitations on the production of toxic gasses. Some have grumbled that these regulations immobilize the coal industry. For those in the sustainability sector, such a truth is a far cry from tragedy.

Perhaps this administration’s pinnacle environmental accomplishment is its groundbreaking fuel-efficiency rule: by 2016, all new cars will be required to average 35.5 miles to the gallon. The rule will cut back on 1.3 million barrels of oil each day and reduce carbon emissions by hundreds of millions of tons.

Bill Maher — comedian by name and social commentator by practice — noted last week a paradigmatic shift from the fantasyland of the Bush years to a sobering new reality. “Before Obama got in (to office) the Smithsonian couldn’t mention global warming as a possible reason the glaciers were shrinking.” By merely acknowledging certain truths, President Obama has restored the nation’s standing as the world’s top investor renewable energy.

Despite his reforms, however, President Obama’s work isn’t yet adequate. And now, the House Republican budget — supported in full by its proud architect, Paul Ryan — outlines cuts topping $897 billion, many of which will uproot the seeds of sustainability that Obama has planted and spoil the fruit that his constituents have borne. If he hasn’t done enough, then let him do more.

The thirst for more doesn’t end at the ozone layer. Examine the changes in the classroom that the last three and a half years have seen.

The stimulus package took effect at the recession’s apex. Most of its funds appropriated toward education were spent on ensuring that teachers kept their jobs. Since that initial groundwork legislation, however, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been met with exceptional success in driving the translation of their own policies into state ones.

In the process, the president has taken a page from the Republican playbook and painted his education initiatives in a laissez-faire glaze. The Race to the Top initiative has invited states to compete for a limited sum of money, which has been awarded to the legislatures who most thoroughly employ administration education policies — implementing merit pay for teachers, building data systems to track student progress, and the like.

The tactic has worked: Upwards of thirty states have actually altered their education platforms to heighten their grant prospects.

But Obama’s most assertive push has been his fight against Bush-era education policies. The administration has exempted 33 states from the laws of No Child Left Behind. The states who qualified for exemptions did so by proactively seeking out ways to sidestep NCLB’s über-idealistic requirement that every student perform at least grade-level work in English and math studies by 2014.

Again, a noble effort. Again, insufficient. The vast majority of Obama education policies are blueprints — semi-complete plans for full implementation in the coming years. In a February GOP primary debate, Mitt Romney was emphatic in declaring that “we need get the federal government out of education.” He has echoed such sentiments deep into the general election season. But the only avenue through which states can legally forgo unhealthy NCLB practices is federal government action — precisely the kind that the President Obama has begun to take. If he hasn’t done enough, then let him do more.

Was my optimism on that frigid inauguration day for naught? The morning had begun as my dad and I sprinted through the streets of Arlington to catch the 4:30 am subway car that would take us — at a bumpy, rhythmic adagio — to Capitol Hill. We had stood in line for five hours, watching the sun rise over the Mall, wondering if perhaps our president-elect was doing the same. The symbolism didn’t escape us.

Indeed, we have been awakened to the limitations of “hope and change.” The environmental and education issues I present are simply a case study representative of the phases of forward movement. But the progress we’ve made rings hollow if we halt it abruptly. President Obama hasn’t yet done enough; I’m opting to let him finish what he’s started.

The sun is peaking out. Let it rise.

Wet and Quickly Drying – An Explanation of the Year’s Changes, A Proposal for Next Steps

As featured on the Huffington Post:

The life we know hasn’t changed much since December 27 of 2010. Murky smog still poisons the air I breathe in Los Angeles. A snapshot of the New York skyline taken today will match that taken last year. The streets of Vegas remain depraved and Capitol Hill remains democratic. This year, in this country, things have changed; but they have done so incrementally.

If the previous paragraph leaves you unconvinced, I ask that you put on a lens not of objectivity, but of relativity. Our country has changed only marginally. In Libya, a year’s change is far from marginal – it’s palpable: its cities look physically different than they did a year ago and its society has pushed through an iron grip – and feels more free. People who live in Egypt can feel the change just as forcefully: new rules govern individuals – but even those rules are actively shifting and evolving. The Tunisians and the Yemenis drove away their longtime presidents. The Syrians Bahrainis were unsuccessful in ousting their leaders, but brought to the forefront issues of rights for women and for Shia – issues that had been buried. Beyond the Western World, change is immense.

This was the year of shattered norms; of shifting variables; of fractured precedents. This was the year in which we – Americans – watched as they – million of others – decided to swiftly and continually forget everything they had been taught. This was the year the world collapsed into itself.

TIME magazine columnist Joel Stein dubbed 2011 “The Year of the Meltdown,” asserting that we’ve had no choice but to “idly watch things completely fall apart.” Indeed, we’ve borne witness to changes that have seemed unnatural and arbitrary: massive readjustments of economic structures, sociological organizations, and individual and communal systems of thought. They have appeared often to be precipitated by anomalies, like a merchant who set himself ablaze, a reporter kidnapped, or an Egyptian woman beaten unjustifiably. The shifts we’ve seen this year make us question the basis on which they have happened; they have seemed somewhat random and erratic. Why now? Why these changes? Why these people?

But the language of change is a universal one. From all angles, in all perspectives, there is an explanation for this year of global collapse and far-reaching transformation.

Those who speak the language of faith – who seek answers to the unanswerable through mechanisms of religion and belief – need look no further than the Book of Job, in which the author elucidates that idea of random destruction and seemingly groundless change in the first chapter. “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return,” explains the book’s narrator. Cycles are a critical component of a pious life – and with them comes the faithful acknowledgement that, even ostensibly randomly, “the Lord gives and the Lord (takes) away.”

For many, an explanation that is based in religious doctrine equates to no explanation at all. Those who speak the language of science or “reason” – who understand the world as a series of systems and rules – will identify with a pervasive biological concept. In wildlife, a cataclysmic event causes destruction of biotic factors in a given area, leaving only a bare substrate. In layman’s terms, it literally wipes away all of the life somewhere and leaves a blank slate. Nature, too, works in cycles. The earth gives and takes. Change is built into the natural world.

A third, more simple and demonstrable explanation comes from my great-grandmother, who, by my father’s account, was a content woman. She repeated and repeated one particular adage. “If you don’t like the weather,”she would say, “just wait a minute.”

Change, we understand, just happens. It is destructive by nature; it has to be, in order to make way for something new or better. But what – I pose to the faithful, the academic, and the elderly – happens next?

When the Lord takes away, the Lord gives again; when a cataclysm leaves a bare substrate, pioneer species begin to settle and grow; when clouds finish raining, they make way for the sun.

Norms can be constructive; precedents are neutral. A process that been tested does, indeed, have a place in this world. There are good politicians just as there are helpful and useful laws. But right now, we have a few fleeting, precarious, and promising moments in which our era is nothing more than wet, quickly-drying concrete.

Let us usher out the year that crushed the world’s conventions; let us welcome the year in which we rebuild them. Let this be the year in which we – American observers of the sweeping changes – embrace our responsibility within our country, to ensure that we can do the work of reinvigorating outside of our country.

We, too, are at a crossroads: let this be the year in which we elect leaders who are interested not in gridlock, but in governing; interested not in exercising vicious imperialism, but in lending a voice to the Shia of Bahrain, the women of Yemen, and still-silent people across the ocean.

Let us elect leaders who will fund programs that send American volunteers to rebuild Tripoli; who will send diplomatic workers to negotiate for the rights whose absence brought on the Arab Spring; who will create domestic dialogue programs so that young Americans of varying faiths learn to understand one another.

The moment is volatile and we are still free. After this year of meltdown, let this be the one of responsibility.

An Afterthought No More – How the Occupy Movement Can Become Politically Effective

Just after arriving at Union Station this afternoon, on a return trip from San Diego, I was driving through downtown Los Angeles. My parents, younger brother and I sped away from the train stop. Past Disney Hall. Past the Colburn Music School. Past Olvera Street. Then past City Hall ––

“Wait, what is that?” my brother asks.

The polychrome slew of grimy tents, crumpled signs, and piled sleeping bags is Occupy LA.

“They’re still there?” he asks.

Indeed, they’re still there, but my brother’s response is indicative of a pervasive, perhaps nationwide impression of the movement: Occupy isn’t so much a wakeup call anymore as it is a nuisance – or, at best, an afterthought. It hasn’t been three months, but the Occupy movement is slowly emerging a footnote on history, a “remember when…” for old friends reminiscing on incidents they’d thought each other had forgotten.

Its causes are hardly an afterthought. Almost a tenth of Americans remain without work – thus, without an income. Even more have become impoverished. Income and wealth disparity hasn’t disappeared. The sundry and eclectic issues that the Occupy movement calls attention to haven’t diminished. Protesters have endured evictions, condemnations, and a good deal of mace, but the movement is dwindling in the public eye.

Why is it dwindling? The movement has yet to attain any sort of conscious or meaningful focus. Its powers of organization barely extend beyond the microcosms of protesters’ individual urban settlements and 130-character Twitter messages.

The following is a proposal: a means of transforming the Occupiers from seemingly parasitic complainers into a cohesive and effective mechanism of policy change. Mine is far from an original concept; only a reiteration of a tried and proven process. It could, perhaps, create real, large scale, lasting change.

Most are familiar with the Occupy movement, but few know about the beckon-call that triggered it. Adbusters is Canadian advocacy group that portrays and publicizes its undertakings through graphic art. In September, the Adbusters blog published a piece of art – emblazoned with a black-and-white image of a dancer atop Wall Street’s Charging Bull sculpture – that implored its readers to “Occupy Wall Street” on September 17th. The call was picked up by several other online groups, and a few days later a cluster of mostly twenty-somethings organized, found its way to Zuccotti Park, and “occupied” it.

“Occupy” protests have, of course, swept the nation and the world in the same vein. That original art piece – that call to “occupy” – pervaded indirectly from the homepage of a blog to the humid streets of Greece, the withered plains of Texas – even the manicured lawns of the campuses of some of the nation’s most selective universities. The movement is a feat of human spontaneity and an illustration of a deep and resonant yearning for equity.

To ensure the clout and efficacy of the Occupy movement, a new call must be issued: a time to convene. A national convention – an assembly – of all who dub themselves “Occupiers” is a organizational necessity. Under the same laws and procedures that currently govern the urban settlements, convention participants should put forward proposals that can comprise a platform. The convention should vote on the issues, and those that win by a majority should be added to the Occupy platform.

It may take hours – even days or weeks – but the result will be invaluable and constructive toward the future of the movement at the issues on which it has grown: an effective, explicitly defined political platform.

From a platform – as we have learned from the Democratic party, the GOP, the woman’s suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, and even the Tea Party – come candidates, policies, political action committees, and palpable, thorough change. As results of the above mentioned assemblies and solidified platforms, women now share equal electoral influence with men, black Americans study in the same school libraries as white Americans, a pre-existing condition can’t bar you from health insurance, and that precise health insurance law is under tremendous judicial scrutiny.

“They’re still there?” my brother asks. We’re still here, will answer the representatives of the movement who are running against governors, assemblymen, presidents, offering legislation aimed at building infrastructure, creating jobs, and reforming trade and big business. We’re still here, will answer a country bereft of a nauseating financial disparity. We’re still here, will answer the ninety-nine percent.

Flake in Chief – Why Rick Perry’s “Executive Experience” is a Relative Term

As featured on the Huffington Post:

Questionable executions and Ponzi scheme conjectures aside, Rick Perry and his proponents have hammered one talking point a little harder than most others: the candidate’s executive experience.

Conservative advocacy group “One Term President” – attempting to draw a dubious parallel between the Texas governor and a party figure head – issued a statement last month when Perry kicked off his presidential campaign. “Rick Perry has more executive experience than any candidate since Ronald Reagan” wrote the group, echoing a popular message among the Right. “That sure is appealing compared to a president that had zero executive experience.”

They have a point. OTP and its allies argue, perhaps justifiably, that having run an organization, a business, or a government adds tremendously to the resume of a candidate for the country’s highest office. The sentiment is one that has been adopted by both sides of the aisle, depending on election year and incumbency. Just two months ago, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty – then a GOP candidate for president – had little trouble persuading a campaign crowd that “you can’t put somebody in the Oval Office who hasn’t had executive experience leading a large enterprise.” His attitude doesn’t differ much from the one liberal icon Bill Clinton adopted while running for president in 1992.

But the OTP crowd is missing one side of the equation. The assertion that eleven years of experience in office qualifies someone to be president likens to an assertion that if you’ve cooked eleven batches of brownies, they must have been delicious. “Leadership experience” rings hollow if the emphasis is on the latter word of the phrase. For a group, political or otherwise, to claim that Rick Perry’s eleven years as governor should hoist him above the political fray reflects profound vacuity.

As it happens, those brownies weren’t as good as they may have seemed. Just in the past few weeks, Perry has neglected the duties of his office for what he has deemed more important ventures. Most recently, he rolled the dice on life and death with cringe-worthy opportunism.

The governor, who has proudly authorized more executions than any state executive in modern history, was nowhere to be found Thursday evening when controversial inmate Duane Buck was scheduled to be put to death in Huntsville, Texas. Buck, a black man whose case involved sensitive racial and psychological issues, is the center one of the most disputed cases since the state’s establishment. His attorneys have fought for a stay on his execution in the weeks leading up to September 15, but legal precedent outlines that a ruling of that nature falls into the hands of either the state’s governor or the United States Supreme Court.

A strong, stolid leader – someone who has learned from his executive experience and has proven it efficacious by standing by his controversial record – should take the lead on a case like this. Perry, however, was absent from the rolling plains of his state Thursday. He had fled to a GOP fundraiser in Iowa, forcing the Supreme Court to stay Buck’s execution – the “big government” he so scorns, in the flesh – and intervene in a decision that should have been his.

Were the Buck case Perry’s only recent lapse in “executive leadership,” perhaps his cronies’ argument would remain sound. But the evidence mounts even higher.

Perry once served as his state’s Commissioner of Agriculture. His former department’s official mission is to “…partner with all Texans to make Texas the nation’s leader in agriculture, fortify (its) economy, (and) empower rural communities…”. As governor, he has made bold statements (albeit without much follow through) on environmental issues. Last week, however, he let his trademark opportunism impede once again upon the “executive leadership” he and his supporters contend makes him more qualified than anyone else to be president.

Perry, whose state has been ravaged by some of the most detrimental wildfires in years (the ferocity of which compelled President Obama to declare a state of emergency in the region) left Texas on September 7, the same day as Obama’s announcement. Did he go to a wedding? To a funeral? To an important budget meeting on Capitol Hill? No, he jetted to Simi Valley, California so that he could expound upon his unequaled executive experience in the Republican presidential debate.

The political infidelity continues. In the month that he has been campaigning for president, Perry has spent stump speech after stump speech emphasizing his commitment to job creation and economic growth, touting Texas’ record under his tenure. But in that same month of campaigning – the first weeks on the road, laying claim to job creation spurred by tax cuts and slashed spending – jobs in Texas have finally met reality and dropped sharply. The state has experienced layoffs in its transportation sector, its mining and logging sector, and – yes – even in its government. During the month of August, thirteen-hundred people in the Lone Star State lost their jobs.

Rick Perry’s “executive leadership” boils down to this: when he sees something he likes better, he visibly drops what he’s already committed to. What’s he going to do when he could be making more money as a Wall Street broker? Or when he realizes that he’d rather be on the golf course than at the State of the Union? Or when Social Security really does just become too much of a hassle for the executive branch? If Americans want a flaky chief executive, they can count on Rick Perry to bail out when the going gets tough. But when you’re the President of the United States, it’s a bit harder to flee to Iowa.

The Irony of Framing the Debate – How Extremism Puts Things into Perspective

This piece won’t be as long as usual; it’s just a thought I had.

In the wake of recent debates and campaign stops, it has quickly become clear that the Republican presidential field generally errs on the side of political and religious extremism, or at least make statements that rely on acute (and often blind) chauvinism. Those of us who listen closely – even those of us who don’t – have watched as candidate after candidate vies for the hearts of the GOP base.

Rick Perry, in a blend of visible one-eighties and glaring political opportunism, has stated his belief that Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme and “a monstrous lie,” and has set out to eliminate it. Michele Bachmann has mixed church with her stately undertakings, and has even called into question whether or not this country needs a Department of Education – it is, perhaps, too rooted in centralized government to work, she claims. Newt Gingrich has promised to repeal the healthcare bill that has already insured upwards of thirty thousand previously unqualified Americans. Mitt Romney has vowed to cut federal spending and cut taxes drastically, for all segments of the population, which would put at risk our economy’s growth. Rick Santorum’s “social” policies are simply a mandate for prejudice. The field is chock-full of radicalism.

We’re being inundated with anxious, daunting flashes of “what would Rick Perry do on his first day?” and “could Michele Bachmann really get elected?” “President Gingrich,” we think, shuddering, or “President Romney.”

Watching the GOP debates helps me put things in perspective. Because, after all: how relieving does “President McCain” sound right about now?

When the Mountain Mumbles – The Other Harry Truman and Why He Matters Now

My grandpa likes to tell a story about a man who lived on a mountain.

The man’s name was Harry Randall Truman (no relation to the former president) and the mountain was Mt. St. Helens in southern Washington. Truman, an octogenarian, loved the mountain and the lake that surrounded it like a father loves his particularly large son. He owned and adored the Mt. St. Helens Lodge, a small inn next to Spirit Lake.

When the mountain began rumbling with volcanic activity in the weeks leading up to May of 1980, scientists and government officials began warning residents of the area to evacuate. Truman, however, headstrong and certain in his beliefs, would hear none of that. He would scold the government and ramble against what he was sure were its no-good conspiracies. “This area is heavily timbered, Spirit Lake is in between me and the mountain, and the mountain is a mile away,” he would say. “The mountain ain’t gonna hurt me.”

Harry Randall Truman, of course, died in a rage of fiery magma.

So I wonder on days like this: what are some New Yorkers thinking?

Today, the President of the United States – a man who has access to more intelligence, more scientific surveillance, more general information, and more of a motivation to save American lives than anyone else in the world – left his vacation, walked in front of dozens of rolling television cameras and said plainly, “I cannot stress this highly enough:  If you are in the projected path of this hurricane, you have to take precautions now.  Don’t wait. Don’t delay…To sum up, all indications point to this being a historic hurricane.”

FEMA, the United States’ Federal Emergency Management Agency – the office whose job it is to tell people when to get out of a place – has issued emergency warnings up and down the east coast.


Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, declared a state of emergency. Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s mayor, has also issued evacuations in several counties. With those evacuations, the state and local agencies working under the above two officials have scheduled a “system-wide shutdown” of buses, Access-A-Ride, subways, Long Island Rail Road, and Metro-North Railroad.

The mountain ain’t gonna hurt me?

Of course, in spite of all this, said one Rockaway Beach resident, speaking the minds of many others, “Sometimes the people who make the calls just want to save their asses.”

That may be the case. But there are days for idealism and political intrepidity. There are days to stand up and bellow condemnations of the government. There are days for Republicans, and those who believe as such, to stand up and claim that “ larger intervention means less practicality.” And there are also days when you need to get out of the way of a vicious hurricane.

Harry Randall Truman put it worst when he told a reporter that “I don’t have any idea whether it will blow…but I don’t believe it to the point that I’m going to pack up.”

It will, New York, and you should.

Back to the Basics – What Boehner is Forgetting at the Negotiating Table

In Washington, a temporary budget has been agreed upon, but the debate is really just beginning. No matter what happens at the negotiating table in the weeks and months to come, conservative rhetoric – “cuts, cuts, cuts” – will not cease; because they just don’t get it. A middle school teacher of mine put it simply: you’ve got to spend money to make money.

John Boehner and his cronies missed a critical lesson in their college Econ classes: the one in which the professor taught the ABCs of basic fiscal policy. Just as you can’t start a business without buying the capital necessary for it to thrive, Boehner can’t expect to reinvigorate the largest economy in the world without a willingness to invest in the programs and resources that will lead it to flourish down the road. The Speaker is wrong because the spending cuts he’s demanding – to the degree at which he hopes to pass them – will fail to fish the American economy out of the deep and opaque waters of recession.

When a country has plummeted into massive, debilitating debt – say, hypothetically, our country – it is reasonable to view deficit spending as a puzzling choice. But now, as Washington’s politicians become desperate and some of the United States’ most critical social programs hang in the balance, this is a question finding the lesser of two evils.

Expansionary fiscal policy pumps money into the public’s reserves. And as the government spends more, employment in domestic industries rises – and so does the productivity of those industries. Investment becomes cheaper and more people are opting into business deals. You can’t knit a blanket without the yarn, you can’t write a paper without doing the research, and you can’t grow an economy without capital investment.

There’s a name for John Boehner’s approach to the budget negotiations. Severe and tangible budget cuts are hallmarks of a contractionary fiscal policy – which is used to shrink the economy when it is being overproductive or when it begins to run the risk of creating dangerous bubbles. And in a country whose populace has a profound fear of the implications of China’s ever accelerating rise, that type of policy is far from appropriate.

The people who get the Republicans elected year in and year out – trade moguls, successful business owners, bigwig executives – have built their careers through financial investment. If the Koch brothers (or their like) treated the country as their business, they would advise their representatives to seek investment for future growth, not slice and dice the federal budget until it’s spread so thin that nothing substantive can be built upon it. It is in the interest of American industry – and the American employment rate – to continue to expand the economy.

When Republicans stand up in town meetings, or on the floor of the House and Senate and wag their fingers at the big, bad, hasty Democrats, they’re simply using scare tactics. The claim that (in a recession or deficit) all spending is disadvantageous is an infantile one. Spending cuts can be helpful in eliminating waste, but it isn’t wasteful to underwrite the American future. If we want lasting positive economic change – if we want to make money – then we’ve gotta spend money.