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Obama’s risky energy gamble

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham pulled his support yesterday from the climate bill he was crafting with Democrat John Kerry and Independent Joe Lieberman, and I can’t say that I’m surprised. President Obama made the concession in late March of opening up new areas to offshore drilling, a move designed to bring Senate Republicans on board with a clean energy bill. But if anything is to be learned from the battle over health care reform, giving Republicans what they want doesn’t bring any votes on board; they are ready to oppose any bill that coincides with the administration’s agenda, even if it includes things the party originally stood for. And while Obama’s move to open up offshore drilling forgets the lessons learned from health care reform, its assumption that it will bring energy independence is wrong to begin with.

John McCain has already sworn off Republican cooperation with Democrats on any legislation after the passage of health care reform, a drumbeat that seems to be in line with the entire party. Graham originally called the move on offshore drilling a “good first step,” but with his recent desertion has now delayed the unveiling of the legislation, scheduled for tomorrow, and has made the future of the entire bill uncertain.

The original reaction to Obama’s offshore drilling move in the Senate was also mixed among Democrats. Bill Nelson of Florida and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey warned that drilling near their states’ coasts would endanger their beaches and coastal economies. Kerry put out a statement saying that “in the difficult work of putting together a 60 vote coalition to price carbon,” he would “put aside his own long-time policy objections” over offshore drilling, all the while not specifically endorsing the plan. It remains unclear if other Democrats will be as willing to also put their objections aside, not to mention withstand the almost guaranteed backlash from environmental groups.

The lessons from passing health care reform seem to have completely disappeared in this next battle. Has the White House forgotten the months of hemming and hawing in the Senate Finance Committee led by Max Baucus, which stalled for months with little to show in bipartisanship? Even after that, in the name of gaining Republican support the bill was allowed to stagnate far after the summer. The longer it sat in limbo the more it became susceptible to false accusations and attacks. The public option was thrown out; restrictive abortion language was inserted; Republican ideas such as extending dependent coverage to age 26 were included in the final bill without a single Republican vote to show for it. The bargaining and delaying didn’t produce Republican support, not because the Democrats didn’t try, but because the GOP will not touch something with Democratic fingerprints on it.

But again we see the desire to have a bipartisan agreement on the climate skew the bill before it is even unveiled. Offshore drilling was offered up without the guarantee of any Republican votes, and the GOP is already backing away. Graham’s objection to the bill has nothing to do with whether or not offshore drilling, a Republican idea, will be included; his objection is the order in which bills are introduced, a lame excuse if ever there was one. His fellow Republicans are likely to find other excuses as to why they can’t back the bill as they create distance from the Obama agenda. This compromise won’t bring forth the Republican votes, and it may threaten the support of some Democrats.

And beyond the misguided political positioning, there is the flawed idea that offshore drilling is a legitimate part of the answer to climate change. Natural gas is now being touted as a “clean energy” because it burns cleaner than coal in generating electricity; thus, if we could only drill into offshore reserves, we would have more clean fuel supply. But onshore natural gas reserves in the US are rising as developing technologies can better extract it from shale formations, where the majority of our natural gas reserves are to be found. The Potential Gas Committee calls the outlook “an exceptionally strong and optimistic gas supply picture for the nation.” It is also likely that the new offshore supply would not hit markets for quite some time, as was pointed out when this issue came up in 2008, and that it is likely to produce a relatively small amount of reserves. (Not to mention the danger of drilling in the middle of the ocean, as witnessed by the sinking BP rig this week.) There is no need to drill offshore while we have a huge supply of natural gas already in development on land.

Add to this a preliminary paper that looks at the total carbon footprint of natural gas extracted from shale formations with the extraction methods taken into consideration. Hydrofracturing, the technique of blasting water and chemicals into rock formations to extract gas from shales, may have its own high emission levels. What our environment needs is not more burning of natural gas, but a clear way to handle carbon emissions so that we can start transitioning to a more carbon-light world.

So Obama has thrown the Republicans a bone, a bone that doesn’t make any climate change sense and one that they are unlikely to catch anyway. Lindsey Graham, the one Republican who seemed willing to consider lending his support to the initiative, is gone before the legislation sees the light of day. The lessons learned so painfully in the health care battle have disappeared, and the future of a climate change bill is already looking dim.


Twitter vs. Question Time

D.C. is stuck. Democrats, even with a huge majority in Congress and a hold on the White House, can’t seem to figure out how to pass health care reform, or even whether they should. Republicans are using their minority to block anything that has a Democrat’s fingerprints on it. The fracture between the two parties seems to have become a gaping canyon that can never be crossed and which opens up in every piece of legislation, often swallowing it whole.

Both a cause and a symptom of our strange political environment is the worship of the sound bite. If a politician dare open his or her mouth, those words will be immediately recorded, taken out of context, packaged, and distributed globally in the 24-hour news cycle. Words are the greatest weapon to be used against an opponent and they are always shortened and sharpened like an arrowhead.

Twitter is the ultimate incarnation of the sound bite world we live in. Don’t misunderstand me — I am a regular user and believe that it has many positive applications, particularly in politics: it is an easy way to spread information, a direct line between leaders and constituents, an enormous discussion board. But Twitter demands that its users speak in 140 character blurbs, mirroring the 30-second sound bite afforded our elected leaders. I find myself listening to interesting speeches or reading well-written op-eds while scanning for that one phrase that I can copy and paste into Twitter. I want to boil the basic point down to something that fits in the 140-character box to pass on to my followers.

This often leaves us little room for “nuance, flexibility, pragmatism — even a full range of human emotions,” as put by Richard W. Stevenson in a recent New York Times article about President Obama’s State of the Union address. It’s hard to explain a complex stance on a complicated issue when your words are only repeated in 140 characters or 30-second doses. Stevenson’s question is a fair one: “Is it possible to embrace complexity in a political and media culture that demands simple themes and promotes conflict?”

Obama recently took this question on by venturing into the dangerous territory of the House Republican retreat and taking direct questions from his opponents, all on-camera. It was a brilliant move, because it gave him the time and space to have a debate and elaborate on what he thinks and why. In reaction to this unscripted, lengthy and riveting conversation, a group of bipartisan political figures and bloggers have begun calling for “Question Time”. What they envision is the President regularly taking questions from Congress in the way that the British Prime Minister appears before the House of Commons for open question forums. Nate Silver, on his blog FiveThirtyEight, explained his reason for joining the Question Time movement: “[I]t seems to me that there is a need for conversations that are not staged, that are not reduced to 30-second soundbytes, and that are not filtered through the lens of the media.”

But what they miss is that no event goes unfiltered. It is a bit ironic that this movement is seeking to escape the sound bite world by spreading its message on Twitter — by using the trending hashtag #questiontime, for example. Their sentiment is worthy, but can Question Time really escape the Twitterization, sound bite machine that is our news consumption? Obama’s GOP retreat debate was, after all, live-tweeted by many, with the juicy morsels pulled out and posted in that limited box. Indeed, in response to the calls for Question Time, White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told reporters, “[P]art of the reason Friday [the House retreat Q&A] was so successful with the GOP conference was the spontaneity that occurred there. And it is going to be hard to recreate the spontaneity that happened.” It seems clear that even something as seemingly pure as a regular open forum will eventually be whittled down to digestible pieces, not just by the 24-hour news. Even these bloggers and Twitterers themselves now partake in the sound bite system.

Perhaps, then, the answer can’t lie in escaping the sound bite, the 140-character Twitter post, and the 24-hour news cycle that will record it and repeat it over and over again. Democrats have to get savvy about being sound bite friendly. Republicans have to partake in the political process even while they create their sound bites. And they should all probably look into creating Twitter accounts.

Fiduciary Duty vs. Patriotic Duty

Even with the central role corporations play in today’s key political issues, few people seem to comprehend the way they act and why. Populist outrage erupts at every excessive dime spent on bonuses. Conservatives on the bench recently decided that corporations deserve constitutional protection. Politicians are still wooing their support on health care reform, financial reform and clean energy policy—a courtship that is sure to end in rejection. But corporate viewpoints on politics should, almost without exception, be ignored, because corporations have one motive, and one motive only: higher returns for the shareholders.

Corporations answer to a select group of people, and those are, in descending order of importance (except in the case of financially unstable companies, which answer almost entirely to their lenders): shareholders, board members, executives, and, lastly, their employees. This is important because shareholders’ single biggest demand is ever increasing profits. Flat revenues will not do, and God help you if you dip into negative numbers. Pulling in higher numbers than the previous year, previous quarter, and all the predictions is the only measure of success for any corporation. Yes, even in a recession.

The focus on profits is the only lens through which they look at today’s issues. Health care and financial reform, green legislation—executives see these as damaging to revenue (not to mention brand new and therefore terrifying). Much of health care reform is aimed at chopping down the flourishing income of the large health care companies. Financial reform puts constraints on the hyperbolic profits posted before the crash. Green technologies threaten to take market share away from traditional sources of energy (coal, oil, and natural gas), and cap and trade will put a “tax” on big carbon consumers, such as electric utilities, for what they use to make money—burning coal to generate electricity that they can sell cheaply to their rate payers.

This is why it is so disastrous to give a corporation the same freedom of speech as a human being. A corporation is not a human being in a very key way: its only concern is with making money. It does not have opinions except what is dictated by the market and its shareholders. The only thing it desires is the ability to make more money. If that happens to coincide with doing some good for the world—there are in fact listed companies that create solar power, for example—then it is a but a happy coincidence. They do not feel altruism unless it is a nice PR stunt; they do not support political candidates unless those candidates will help them make more money.

This is also why the voices of corporations need to stay out of discussions about reforming their own industries. A large health care company will only get on board with health care legislation if it thinks it will positively impact the bottom line; a prominent investment bank will only back financial reform that stays out of its way; a multi-billion dollar electric utility will only take up the cause of renewable energy if doing otherwise will hurt them. Accepting their point of view as valid in these discussions is blind, and hoping that they will be supportive of real reform is naive. Any proposal that excites the executives of a particular industry is to be viewed with the utmost skepticism.

Bart Stupak’s Contribution to the Pro-choice Movement

The idea that good could come from the Stupak Amendment, an amendment introduced by Representative Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) that was passed and put into the House health care bill, would likely infuriate any self-respecting pro-choicer. The amendment purports to continue the “status quo” in separating federal dollars from funding abortion. But in reality, as many pro-choice and neutral groups have proven, this amendment threatens to take women many steps backward in their access to abortion coverage. By making sure that no individual who receives a government subsidy—a bounty of new customers for insurance companies—can buy into any plan that offers abortion coverage, insurance companies are incentivized to stop offering it in order to tap into this new market.

Glimmers of a silver lining are beginning to show through the anti-choice storm clouds, however: the pro-choice movement has galvanized in a campaign against this amendment in a manner not witnessed in this country for quite some time.

For many women, the label “feminist” has become a dirty word. Even liberal-leaning news outlets such as The New York Times, NPR and MSNBC have taken to calling the pro-choice movement “pro-abortion”—and what woman wants to label herself pro-abortion? A large percentage of young women are passively supportive of the pro-choice cause at best, and at worst are apathetic or even adverse to becoming involved.

Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized a women’s right to choose an abortion, happened nearly 37 years ago. We now have a divide between those who remember life with illegal abortions, their memories branded with a sense of urgency and danger, and those who have only known safe and legal ones. As The New York Times said in a recent article, “The 30- to 40-somethings…are more concerned with educating their children about sex, and generally too busy to be bothered with political causes. The 25-and-under crowd, animated by activism, sees a deeper threat in climate change or banning gay marriage or the Darfur genocide than in any rollback of reproductive rights.” Young people of our generation have yet to come out in forces anything like those from the 60’s and 70’s women’s rights movement.

The pro-choice movement witnessed many concessions and setbacks in recent times: the push for mandatory sonograms, counseling and waiting periods; “conscience” clauses allowing physicians and pharmacists to deny women birth control access; the brutal assassination of Doctor George Tiller, among others. And there have always been a core group of pro-choice women fighting these setbacks, mourning losses and celebrating victories.

But the Stupak Amendment has captured the attention of those 25-40 somethings that aren’t interested in political causes or feel other causes are more important. Since the House vote, pro-choice groups have seen an inundation of funding and support—Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, recently told the Times, “The reaction [to Stupak] has been phenomenal, like a match dropped on dry kindling.” A consortium of pro-choice groups, including Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and NARAL Pro-choice, organized a lobbying day on December 2nd that had such a high turnout that the overflow room was reported to hold 200 people.

The pro-choice fight is not only seeing a huge revitalization, but it is moving into the mainstream. Even Cosmo has gotten into the action, running a recent piece called Are Your Rights in Jeopardy? that linked to a Planned Parenthood abortion ban petition. Women seem to be comfortable coming out against the amendment and finally standing up for the rights that have been slowing sliding away from us.

The health care fight is now in the Senate, where Stupak-esque language is already being introduced by Senator Ben Nelson (D -Neb.), although has a slim chance of garnering enough votes to pass. If the Senate passes a health reform bill, women will be holding their breath in hopes that the Stupak language will be taken out in conference.

But no matter how the Senate votes and now matter what the final bill looks like, one important thing has happened to the pro-choice movement: its new generation is paying attention. Hopefully that can be the only lasting effect that Bart Stupak has on women’s rights.

Women’s health: why women’s care should galvanize health care reform

Even after President Barack Obama set the record straight on health care with his speech to a joint session of Congress on September 9th, calling out misinformation on both sides, misconception continues to swirl around the debate. Perhaps one of the most dangerous lies being spread focuses on abortion and the use of public money to fund procedures. Groups on the right are spreading a myth that health care reform will not only use public money to pay for abortions, but will force plans to cover them and as a consequence of reform the number of abortions in the country will increase.

These myths are dangerous firstly because they threaten to derail the entire debate, and therefore swallow up a chance for real reform by politicizing and falsifying it. But they are also highly dangerous because they use women’s care to block reform and therefore to block women’s access to better health care—access that, under our current system, is unequal and in great need of repair.

Women stand to gain much from health care reform—they pay more for health care, use the system more often, and are more likely to be underinsured than men. Because women as a group are poorer (earning 78 cents for every dollar earned by men) and use more care (needing additional visits for reproductive health, being more likely to suffer from chronic conditions, and tending to use more preventative care), women spend a larger share of their income on health related costs. But because insurers in most states can consider gender when setting premium rates, women and businesses with predominantly female workforces are often charged more than their male counterparts for equal coverage. And more women lack health coverage than men—45 percent of women, compared to 39 percent of men, were uninsured or underinsured in 2007. [1] Measures under proposal will aid women by limiting out-of-pocket costs, providing more affordable health insurance premiums, and prohibiting insurers from imposing caps on benefits. It can also provide oversight to ensure that women are not disproportionately impacted by the costs of health care.

But despite these facts, their health and right to care have yet to become a galvanizing force for reform, but are rather an excuse to block it. Abortion and women’s access to such care is a delicate and emotional topic in this country, but it is being used to scare voters away from health care reform. The sensitivity of the issue requires subtle consideration—and therefore careful steps have already been taken to ensure that both sides feel comfortable with the bills being considered. In late August, Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) offered an amendment, called the Capps Amendment, which lays out clear boundaries that walk the fine line between the two emotional sides to the abortion debate.

With the Capps Amendment, insurers who sell policies on the national insurance exchange, one of the bipartisan solutions to health care reform, would not be required to offer abortion coverage, nor would they be prohibited from doing so, true for both private and public plans on the exchange. Each region of the country would also be required to have at least one plan available that covers abortion and one that does not.

The amendment would also respect state laws on abortion. Currently, in Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri and North Dakota, private insurance coverage of abortions is restricted to cases in which a woman’s life is in danger unless she purchases an insurance rider for an additional fee, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Oklahoma has a similar restriction, but also allows abortion in cases of rape or incest. These restrictions would go untouched with the Capps Amendment. Medicaid coverage of abortion would also continue to be restricted by the Hyde amendment, which prohibits federal funds from being used to provide abortions services except in cases of rape, incest or danger to a woman’s life, even if pending legislation were to extend Medicaid coverage. Although in my view these restrictions deny women an important facet of care, the sensitivity of the issue should keep their consideration out of current reform.

The assertion that Obama’s plan would pay for abortions becomes even less relevant when considering that not only do plans currently cover abortion treatment by and large, but the public is largely in support of reform continuing this coverage. A Guttmacher Institute survey found that around 86 percent of employment-based health plans currently cover abortion, and the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2003 Employer Health Benefits Survey found that 46 percent of workers have coverage for abortion services. And when looking at larger firms, the rate is more than 50 percent. [2] (The discrepancy in numbers is likely due to a difference between the questions asked.) But more importantly, a recent poll conducted by the Mellman Group for the National Women’s Law Center found that 71 percent of voters supported requiring health plans to cover women’s reproductive health services if both a health exchange and public option are established.

President Obama spelled out a now given fact in his speech to congress by stating, “Under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place.” That is the simple truth—period. But one thing reform will do is ensure that women have better access to health care by doing away with discrimination in fees and coverage and bringing down the costs.

It is time women are put at the forefront of the debate not as a way to derail it, but as a prime example of why the country needs reform.

The Sotomayor pick: recognizing identity politics

Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination brought identity politics in the U.S. into sharp relief. Beyond being an important event in a historic presidency, it is one clear indication of attitudes about race and gender in the U.S.: it is now OK to define people based on these characteristics.

Obama narrowed the initial pool of potential judges down to four women: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Diane Wood, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, and U.S. Circuit Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor. All four had broken through as the first woman in a particular position at some point in their lives. This group was demarcated by their expansion of the representation of the Fairer Sex.

Of that pool, Sotomayor stands out by one trait: she is Hispanic. Pundits, analysts and citizens have speculated ever since Obama took oath that he “needed” to point his almighty finger at a Hispanic and make an appointment somewhere, be it his cabinet, administration, or now, the Supreme Court. Such a move would reel in the support of a constituency that is on the fence between religion-driven conservatism and minority rights-driven liberalism.

This does not diminish the capabilities that Sotomayor possesses, nor does it mean Obama made a misguided choice. It is not shocking, nor is it wrong, that gender and race were the deciding factors. What is shocking is that no one is outraged by this motivation. (Besides Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck calling both Sotomayor and Obama reverse racists.)

America once championed the concept of Politically Correct. Politically correct language was neutral, attempting make invisible the demarcations of race and gender. The old story told us that if we could all just forget that we have different skin colors, ethnic backgrounds and reproductive body parts, equality could be achieved. It envisioned society as a huge Melting Pot, boiling us down to one basic element.

Sotomayor’s nomination suggests that we’ve finally realized that this is impossible. We are moving from a race-and-gender-blind society to one that embraces the fact that humans are different from each other, a difference that should be recognized rather than suppressed. Our lives are all shaped by our defining characteristics, which include gender and race, as well as socioeconomic standing, sexual orientation, and even details such as eye and hair color. Each human is the outcome of a slew of factors that can never be escaped. And to attempt to do so is fallacy.

“Post-racial” politics should not require that Obama make his Supreme Court choice with a blindfold on and ear plugs in, somehow “past” or “beyond” racial issues. It should mean that he, and our country, recognizes that by nominating both a woman and a Hispanic to the Supreme Court, Sotomayor will bring a different perspective and open up the judicial dialogue to groups that are underrepresented. He did not just send a message to the Hispanic population of the U.S.; he sent it to the country. Embrace the differences. They make us unique. They make us diverse. And most importantly, they make us. Recognizing that fact, and celebrating it, is no sin.

Grid parity: intersection of CEO and politician

J. Wayne Leonard has ruled the multi-billion dollar electric utility Entergy Corporation as chief executive officer for ten years. Saying that he has strong opinions does little to describe the ego required for such a position. Chief executives at utilities are notorious egomaniacs; reading the nasty schoolgirl-esque letters between the management of Exelon, which made a hostile bid to buy fellow utility NRG, and the other company’s management, reveals their swagger and narcissism. Being the CEO of any company takes a healthy dash of cojones, but when many billions of dollars are involved, those personalities reach a different level altogether.

I am a financial reporter who moonlights as a liberal activist. My job as a reporter recently sent me to a utility conference, at which I listened to a panel discussion between Leonard and two other chief executives of two other multi-billion dollar utilities. The stimulus bill, alongside green energy, carbon legislation, building a smart grid, and other buzz topics, were, unsurprisingly, the focus of the panel.

The panel I attended was dubbed “A View from the Top”, implying that these CEOs, sitting atop the mountains of cash at their respective companies, can see more clearly than other people. Executives are getting the same airtime these days as politicians; the names Liddy and Geithner have equal relevance in a discussion of our current economic crisis.

Leonard termed the new administration’s legislation and ideas about energy “goofy” and called for “economic bearing as opposed to social engineering.” He was engaging, convincing, and charming. The crowd laughed at his jokes and relished his opinions as facts. The moderator took an informal poll at the end, called “True or False”: he posed an idea from the new administration to the audience and asked those who thought it would soon be true to raise their hands. When asked if ideas such as carbon cap and trade programs, federal renewable portfolio standards, and large amounts of electrical cars on the road would be seen in the near future, only a few hands waved in the air like weeds that had yet to be plucked.

Months before he was elected, I was invited to volunteer at one of Obama’s rallies in Mayfair, Pennsylvania. Green energy was already high on his agenda. When Obama used phrases such as “energy independence,” “clean coal,” “renewable energy standards,” and “green economy,” he received wild applause. These were dreams the audience shared, and Obama was going to make them reality. He joked and smiled, with his sleeves rolled up, and described the world in ways that the crowd believed in.

Leonard and Obama are extremely similar. A strong leader’s words can completely convince their herd of something yet to be seen (or that it never will be seen, depending on which you listened to). They both believed in two entirely different and yet completely viable versions of reality.

And neither has set out a clear or specific plan against the other. It was on behalf of his ratepayers that Leonard rejected the new administration’s agenda: he claimed, “We’re not against renewables,” and then followed with a huge “but”, in which he called for sustainable and more economic plans that would not hurt ratepayers. That was as far as he went in outlining his own set of plans.

Renewable energy companies share the goal of “grid parity”, which is the point at which traditional energy prices climb so high and the cost of renewable energy falls so low that they overlap and cost the same amount. Right now these two lines are crawling slowly toward each other. The lines that represent the views of energy executives and politicians making decisions about renewable energy, however, remain tragically parallel. What does it mean to get two groups, each of whom answers to a different crowd, to work together on a similar goal? Does either group see any more clearly than the other?

Why It’s OK to Drink the Obama Kool-Aid

Obama’s first 100 days in office were filled with formidable tasks, including autograph signing for prime minister’s children. Paparazzi crews stalked him like tigers and I heard more about Bo than I did about Biden. No one can deny that we are in celebrity president overkill. But the real question we need to ask is: is the hype over this man warranted? Can we let ourselves get swept up in the adoration? Yes we can.

The Youth

I was extremely disappointed when I grew up to find out that the Hippie Generation was over. My parents made free love, took too many drugs, and protested the Vietnam War, and I naturally planned to find my own cause when I grew up. It was clear that I was going to be an Activist, too.

So when I was a freshman in high school I made the mistake of giving a speech to my classmates on feminism. Freshman year is the wrong time to take social leaps, but when asked to model a speech after one from history, I was immediately drawn to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s at the Seneca Falls Convention on July 19th, 1848, on women’s right to vote. This caught my attention as one of the historical fights that was still being fought, and I decided to go with it. After all, the women of my mother’s age were proud to wear such a label on the lapels of their shoulder-padded pantsuits.

After giving my speech on a woman’s position in society as convincingly as I thought Elizabeth might have done 150 years ago, I looked around the room and found completely un-roused and slightly embarrassed faces. It was as if I had just told them to take off their designer bras and burn them right there on the table. I slunk over to my seat and listened to speeches about various historical causes: the Bolshevik Revolution, Labor Movement, etc. There was no cringing when these speeches were made. All of these movements were long finished. My peers had decided that the fighting was over; it wasn’t their job to crusade anymore.

This was my first brush with my generation’s apathy, the reason so many politicians have made it their personal mission to reach the notoriously elusive Young Voters. We have been the unreachable ones, padded by the prosperous Clinton years and blissful in our ignorance. The voting turnout for people 18-24 had shrunk to a meager 32% by 2000, according to an August 2008 New York Post article, down from almost 50% turnout in 1972, the first year 18-year-olds could vote. But the lack of voting was only a symptom of a far worse disease: we didn’t even care.

Real Leader

The late David Foster Wallace mused on this indifference in his essay McCain’s Promise and described what was missing: a Real Leader. “A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people.” He then lists some figures that, “by all available evidence”, qualify as Leaders: Lincoln, Churchill, Gandhi, King, both Roosevelts, de Gaulle, Marshall, maybe Eisenhower, and the most recent Real Leader of our country: JFK. Kennedy ran for president in 1960. No one my age was alive to witness any of the people on Wallace’s list. My classmates freshman year weren’t far off when they gave me those blank stares; political movements really were a thing of the past.

The essay, as suggested by the title, is about John McCain, who, Wallace shows us, was running to inspire the young generation of voters “to devote themselves to causes greater than their own self-interest” as a Real Leader should. However, as McCain reached out to the Young Voters, Foster noticed, “a great many of those young Americans will yawn or roll their eyes or make some ironic joke instead of feeling inspired the way they did with Kennedy.” And then, after the Republican primary in South Carolina got nasty, McCain lost (as did Gore in the general election), and we got George W. Bush.

Even the first four years of Bushisms didn’t do enough to fully stir Young Voters out of our torpor. I found myself in the minority again when going to anti-war rallies and signing online petitions. When Bush’s first four years were up, I didn’t know anyone who worked for Kerry, including myself. Although voter turnout in my age group rose to 47% in the 2004 election, simply voting was as close to political activism as anyone seemed willing to venture.

So we had another four years of Bush. And the havoc wreaked by those four years certainly opened a few sleepy eyes: Katrina, torture, Cheney shooting his friend in the face and, most recently, the economic collapse, amongst many other gaffes from the Oval Office.

Then along came Obama. I first heard of him, as many did, when he was just an Illinois state senator making a splash with his DNC speech. He was soon buzzed about in my social group like a viral YouTube video. The word “Obama” was slipped into conversation alongside the newest cultural blogs and Wes Anderson films. I even had a friend who set her Google Talk away message as “obama!” Politics were transforming from communal gripe sessions into groups rallying around a cause.

As I have explained to many Hillary-supporters-turned-Obama-volunteers, as much as I liked Hillary and the idea of having a female president—I still call myself a feminist, after all—it was Obama’s magnetism and promise that got me from online petitions to the real world. Obama was able to make me leave my apartment at 6am every Saturday and travel to another state to spend a day knocking on strangers’ doors. Something was different.

Messiah Watch

These days, anyone can go to Times Square and buy a t-shirt that depicts Obama stripping back a suit to reveal a blue leotard with a large triumphant “O” underneath.
In an Entertainment weekly article by Jeff Labrecque and Whitney Pastorek on “President Rockstar,” Chris Volger explains why Obama is like a superhero: “He’s got this alter ego, the Obama before he gets to the White House, that so many people can relate to… And then he puts on his uniform—the presidency—and becomes a superhero.”

It is dangerous to cast a mortal man as a real life superhero. Some have even gone as far as to recreate him as a Messiah figure—Slate’s Obama Messiah Watch or are two outlets that chronicle just that flavor of adoration. In fact, Obama beat out Jesus as the nation’s most often picked hero, according to the most recent Harris Poll. His status as a celebrity and even a savior has the potential to, in its most benign form, lead us to disappointment when we realize he’s a human, and at worst, keep people from challenging him when he deserves it (not to mention creep us out a bit). We cannot give him carte blanche and walk away without demanding he live up to the ideas that drew us towards his campaign. We should judge Obama not on the eloquence of his speech, the beauty of his thoughts, or his spiffy sunglasses. We should judge him on what he actually accomplishes.

So then let’s look at what he’s already done, what he had done long before his first 100 days in office began: he roused the most torpid of demographics. An estimated 23 million Americans under the age of 30 voted in the 2008 election, an increase of 3.4 million compared to 2004, according to a CIRCLE report on Youth Voting, and 66% of those voted for Obama, according to a Pew Research Center report from November 12. But beyond voting turnout in my age group, which is impressive, what is more impressive and far more important is that they did more than vote. When I told my story to other volunteers, that I had done absolutely no work for Kerry and was now traveling every weekend for Obama, I was not alone—most people I met had never done this before either. And there were hundreds of us in Philadelphia alone. Almost all of my friends who had done nothing for Kerry had volunteered for Obama, from phone banking to donating to canvassing to wearing Obama gear.

And in spite of the blank stares of high school classmates who were convinced we don’t need to fight anymore, this is a fight that marches on. The Onion hits the nail on the head with this video: no one could stop talking about the campaign after the victory came and went. I still wear my Obama Biden pin on my bag, as do about a third of the people I see on the subway. I went to the inauguration and wore an Obama shirt under 17 other layers, along with at least 800,000 people dressed in anything with Obama’s face on it. But far more importantly than the campaign swag and post-election fervor, 100 days later we still pay attention. I care about what legislation has been passed and have spent time reading about positions and issues so that I actually know what the Director of OMB does. And the most important thing of all: I still feel as if I have a part of it all, as if I have a stake in what is happening Capitol Hill. My friends and I talk about the issues. We care.

I’m an Obama fanatic not just because he’s hot, not just because he plays basketball when he’s done giving the most eloquent speeches I’ve heard in my lifetime, and not just because he coined the best slogan since Make Love Not War. I’m an Obama fanatic because he is able to make me a fanatic. And that’s why I drink the Kool-Aid.

Breaking Through the Standstill

The house voted on March 24th with an extremely slim margin, 218 against 212, to set a timetable for an Iraq pull-out, among other things (for the NY Times article, go here.) It’s both exciting and frustrating: these are extremely polarized times, and although I see a lot of good progress and change in congress, there is also equal force in the opposition. It feels like we keep reaching standstills. An interesting aspect in all of this is President Bush’s role. I saw an interview with ambassador John Bolton, a conservative politician, on The Daily Show–a refreshingly tough yet respectful and intelligent debate between Jon and a conservative, which I haven’t seen him do well in a while–in which Mr. Bolton was claiming that it is undemocratic for congress to be blocking all of Bush’s moves. His argument is that in a decomcractic state, where the people have chosen a leader from among themselves with a fair election, to block this leader is to defeat the purpose of picking him in the first place. My (and Jon’s) response to this, of course, is checks and balances: the people elected their new congress out of frustration with what their elected leader was doing. The new congress is a way for their voices to be heard. But the static situation in our government does make me question this, and to see a little of this man’s point. A leader is picked to lead, and so when he is stopped from doing so, what should the next step be? How should the government proceed in the next year before the election so as to actually get things done in Iraq? Iraq should not be suffering the consequences of a divided country across the ocean. Should Congress compromise, as it seems they did, in order to get things done? Or should they stick to what they believe through-and-through, even if it means that very little is accomplished?

Responsibility for One’s Actions

The article in the New York Times magazine this weekend on neuroscience and the law brings up issues that I’ve been thinking about for quite some time. It seems to me that as a society we have yet to make a decision on where one draws the line for what a person is responsible for in their own actions and what a person is not responsible for. I think about this in my own personal relationships: what should I excuse away in a friend, parent or boyfriend’s behavior due to past traumas, upbringing, and other things out of their control, and what can I really hold them to task for? Take, as an example, a boyfriend who can’t commit. Your first reaction is to blame him for his inability to meet your needs. But if your boyfriend acts this way because of a trauma in childhood, or some sort of depression, or a million other things that might make him act this way, are you justified in blaming him? Is it his active choice to not commit, or is it something out of his control? And how do we define a “free choice”? This article brings these dilemmas into the arena of the law. If it can be proved that a defendant’s brain is making them act a certain way and that is the cause for their crime, can we really hold that person responsible? But where do you draw the line? There is something in all of our brains making us all do the things we do, the difference being that mine doesn’t make me kill anyone. Can’t it be said that every killer has some sort of disorder in his or her brain, and that that is the real division between a criminal and a normal, healthy citizen? It strikes me as an arena just as difficult to draw lines in as when a fetus becomes a person, dealing with similar boundary issues of mind and soul. What of your mind is your own, and what is out of your control? What actions can you own as your own, and what actions come from something in your brain?