Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A ground-level view of economic recovery

By DeWayne Wickham

WINDERMERE, Fla. — A day after leaders of the world's 20 biggest economies met in Pittsburgh to fashion a plan to hasten recovery from the global recession, Stefano Tedeschi, a recent transplant from that city, sat outside his new restaurant greeting a procession of customers.

Located in a strip mall in this western suburb of Orlando, the month-old business — Stefano's Italian Grille — might be a better gauge of how the economy is doing than the recovery plan hatched by the G-20 nations. "I see a steady flow of people going out to places, but they just don't want to spend as much," said Tedeschi. "I have 5-star dining at 3-star prices. That's our economic stimulus package."

The big news out of the Pittsburgh gathering last week is that the near collapse of world economic markets caused governments to promise better financial behavior by their countries. China, Japan and Germany, which sell far more stuff to other nations than they buy abroad, promised to try to reduce their dependence on exports. In return, the U.S. agreed to slash its trade and budget deficits, and try to persuade Americans to save more money.

These and other deals made by the G-20 nations are supposed to speed up the economic recovery — and lessen tensions between the world's dominant economies and those of emerging financial powers. But even before these measures have time to take effect, Tedeschi said he and his wife, Mary Caprino, are already seeing signs of recovery — and indications of changing consumption habits.

Middle-class customers are being lured into his restaurant, Tedeschi said, with novel promotions and good pricing.

"Mary came up with the idea for our 'Girls Gone Wine' night," he said of the promotion that drew more than 200 customers Thursday. For $20, women got unlimited wine and food, served butler style, from 8:30 p.m. until 11 p.m. Guys who came also got the same deal, the savvy restaurateur said.

His menu also lists 25 wines that each sell for $25. "People are spending again, but they want value," said Tedeschi. "I always ask customers what they think of the value they get here. Acknowledgement of the value is a big deal. When you get them to say it, they'll repeat it to others."

Of course, Tedeschi's reading of the economy falls far short of a World Bank analysis. What he says doesn't have the impact of the musings of Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman. But Tedeschi's assessment of the economy is the kind of ground-level view of this nation's return from the brink of financial collapse that too often is missed by the news media — and too little valued by economists.

His restaurant is not part of a national chain. It isn't a regular haunt of Washington insiders, Hollywood moguls or network anchors. It's a neighborhood eatery with a posh look and attractive menu offerings that may have more of a future than the high-priced restaurants that attracted the well-to-do before the bottom fell out of the economy.

It's the middle class that will drive this nation's economic recovery. When these people start spending again — not just on big ticket items but also in neighborhood restaurants like Tedeschi's — that's when the signs of recovery will be most pronounced.

The changes the G-20 countries have committed to are macroeconomic measures that could fix what's broken with the world's economy. But it's in small businesses like Stefano's Italian Grille that the truest measure of this nation's economic well-being can be found.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Some attacks on Obama are racist

By DeWayne Wickham

Jimmy Carter is getting a bum rap.

The former Democratic president is being derided for saying racism is the driving force behind the mounting personal attacks on President Barack Obama.

“I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is black... racism still exists and I think it’s bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African Americans are not qualified to lead this country,” Carter said during an interview with NBC News anchor Brian Williams.

Carter was quickly accused of generally branding opponents of Obama’s policies as racists, but he made no such blanket assertion. His slam was directed at a much smaller group of people — those who have made Obama the target of personal attacks.

Carter was talking about the knuckleheads carrying signs that say, “The zoo has an African and the White House has a lyin’ African,” or “‘Cap’ Congress and ‘Trade’ Obama back to Kenya!” — or the morons who sent out post cards showing the White House lawn as a watermelon patch, and those who created images suggesting Obama is a monkey.

If Carter didn’t make this distinction clearly enough to Williams, he addressed the issue a day later during an appearance in Atlanta, Ga.

“When a radical fringe element of demonstrators and others begin to attack the president of the United States of America as an animal, or a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler, or when they wave signs in the air that say we should have buried Obama with Kennedy... I think people who are guilty of that kind of personal attack against Obama have been influenced to a major degree by a belief that he should not be president because he happens to be African American.”

On this point, Carter is right.

Too many of his critics were quick to say he was generally condemning most whites as racists, when in fact his condemnation was very narrowly drawn. Too many people were quick to all but dismiss race as a factor in the attacks Obama has weathered.

Too few of Carter’s critics were willing to concede that while most of those who differ with Obama do so for strongly held-ideological reasons, some are cold-blooded racists who simply can’t stand to have a black man at this nation’s helm.

Had the former president, who will soon be 85, chosen his words better, the racial flap he unleashed might have been avoided. It also could have been averted if Williams had asked a follow-up question to elicit a more precise explanation of what Carter meant.

But in this supposed “post-racial era,” the most damning thing someone can do is call someone else a racist. Such talk makes people uncomfortable, even if it rings true. Asked by The New York Times to react to Carter’s allegation, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said that while the nation is not “racially pure,” he thought that “constantly talking about (race) and reducing everything to black versus white is not helpful to the cause of restoring civility to our public dialogue.”

Powell’s position seems to reflect the national mood, which Carter breeched when he called the racists among Obama’s critics what they really are — racists. And for this, Carter has gotten a bum rap.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Conservatives attack Obama and slime themselves

By DeWayne Wickham

As President Obama fired up a crowd of nearly 17,000 in Minneapolis Saturday with tough talk of his determination to win passage of a universal health care bill, tens of thousands of conservatives took to the streets of the nation’s capital to protest that legislation.

Obama told his audience the bill is needed because tens of millions of Americans have no health insurance and “live every day just one accident . . . away from bankruptcy.” Many of the people who showed up at the Washington demonstration say a government-mandated national health insurance program is socialism.

The war of words between these two groups is the latest salvo in a conflict whose outcome will define this nation for generations to come.

This country is now at war on three fronts. In Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 200,000 U.S. troops are fighting to rid those places of despotic rulers and install democratic governments. The other battle pits the rear guard of this nation’s badly wounded conservative movement against the nascent coalition of Americans that hoisted Obama into the White House.

Once a powerful political force, conservatives now hold sway only in some Southern and Western states — and even in these places their influence is shrinking. They hope the fight they now wage with Obama will win them a new following of national consequence. It is also just one of the arrows in their quiver.

Some conservative leaders, or their minions, are behind the “birthers,” who argue that Obama’s presidency is illegal because he is not a natural-born citizen, as the Constitution requires. Never mind that even Hawaii’s Republican governor says there is irrefutable proof that Obama was born there. Yet the birthers pander to the fringes of the antiimmigration movement by persisting in their claim.

And Republicans have cynically embraced the Tea Party movement, which objects to the spending policies of the Obama administration and Democratic majority Congress. But it is the fight over a national health insurance program where conservatives hope to reverse their slide.

“I may not be the first president to take up the cause of health care reform, but I am determined to be the last. We are going to get it done this year,” Obama said to his Minneapolis audience, invoking words he used a few days earlier in his nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress.

Sensing that the health care fight could produce a big victory for right-wingers, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a leading Republican conservative, told some supporters in July: “If we are able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”

But the multifront battle conservatives are waging is about more than breaking Obama. It’s about political resurrection. It’s about turning back the clock — stopping the multiracial, multiethnic coalition that put Obama in the White House from ushering in a new, and commanding, U.S. political force.

Conservatives want to keep Obama from making health coverage a basic right because that will strengthen his political standing and hasten their demise.

And, as in all fights for survival, the rules of engagement in this contest would make Attila the Hun blush. So in the days ahead, you can expect that conservatives will find new ways to challenge Obama’s legitimacy and slime themselves in the process.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Joe Wilson: the liar who cried foul

By DeWayne Wickham

The thing that bothers me most about Joe Wilson is not that he interrupted President Barack Obama’s nationally televised address on health care reform to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday with the shrill charge, “You lie.”

The GOP backbencher’s exercise of free speech, for which he quickly apologized, didn’t upset me as much as his arrogance. The odor of mendacity wafting through the chamber came not from Obama, but from the mouth of Wilson, a five-term South Carolina representative.

Wilson’s outburst came in response to Obama’s assertion that “the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.” That was a direct rebuttal of a major talking point for congressional Republicans: the claim that Obama’s proposals would insure illegal immigrants.

They reach this conclusion based not on what’s in the health care reform legislation pushed by Democrats, but on what they say isn’t in the bill. They say the president and his fellow Democrats, by not mandating that everyone who gets health care coverage be required to produce proof of citizenship, would open a back door to cover people in the country illegally.

Never mind that federal law already requires employers to verify the legal status of all new hires. Wilson and other Republican naysayers persist in saying the sky is falling because Democrats wouldn’t require federal officials to duplicate that verification process.

And they appear oblivious to language in the House bill that would bar illegal immigrants from getting coverage through a proposed health insurance exchange. The exchange would offer coverage to people who aren’t part of an employer’s plan and aren’t covered by Medicare and Medicaid.

But Section 246 of the House bill makes clear there’s no opening here for illegal immigrants to slip through.

“Nothing in this subtitle shall allow federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States,” the bill reads.

If you still accept Wilson’s charge that the president lied, consider this: A few days before Wilson’s rant, the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan arm of Congress, released an analysis of health care legislation moving through the House. It concluded that only U.S. citizens and legal residents could get federal health care subsidies.

So what motivated Wilson?

It’s a good bet his outburst was something akin to the flailing of a drowning man. But it’s not Wilson alone who’s at risk of going under, it’s the entire Republican Party. The GOP seems to stand for nothing more these days than opposition to Barack Obama’s presidency.

To call it simply “the party of no” is to assign a fairly benign reason for its demise. Republicans stumbled to the precipice because they ran out of ideas. But the GOP movement dominated by right-wingers like Wilson is much more nefarious.

It’s the rear guard of the “states’ rights movement” that was the political arm of the Jim Crow era, and the linear successor of Dixiecrats who broke with the Democratic Party in 1948 and found a home in the GOP. At a time when America is becoming more diverse, the GOP looks like — and sometimes behaves like — the White Citizens’ Council that once dominated Southern life.

These are desperate times for the GOP, and desperate people do desperate things — like hurling an insult at the president of the United States from the floor of Congress.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Get bin Laden, then get out

By DeWayne Wickham

"Don't go down that rabbit hole." That's what the voice of reason inside Barack Obama's head should be shouting as pressure grows for the president to sharply increase American military forces in Afghanistan.

There are already 68,000 U.S. troops - and an even larger number of quasi-military contractors - in that war-torn country. And Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the American commander there, is expected to ask for between 10,000 and 45,000 more troops.

He says they're needed to help stabilize Afghanistan's government and military. That's a nation-building subplot which diverts resources from what ought to be the Obama administration's primary mission: hunting down Osama bin Laden and destroying al-Qaeda.

That's the job the Bush administration set out to do. But, it got bogged down trying to punish the Taliban, botching a mission that started as retaliation for al-Qaeda's attacks on 9/11.

Taliban leaders were chased from power shortly after U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001. In the years since, first Bush and now Obama have used U.S. military power to prop up the corrupt but pro-American government of Hamid Karzai.

Keeping Karzai in power - and the Taliban at bay - has become an increasingly demanding job for American forces. This side mission has also clouded the judgment of a lot of people who have a hand in defining the role of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Instead of committing this nation's military to a generational war against a religious sect over control of a distant land, Obama should give American forces in Afghanistan a single, clearly stated mission: Get bin Laden and his top aides and then come home.

This is an approach that most Americans would back, and it comports with the Powell Doctrine. That's the strategy - first articulated by soldier-turned-diplomat Colin Powell - of using overwhelming military force against a threat to our national security. Such a mission must also have popular support and a well-defined exit strategy.

What Obama shouldn't do is commit more troops to what amounts to a fight to decide who will govern Afghanistan. That shouldn't be America's war because there simply aren't any good guys in that battle. Though the Taliban would reinstate a misogynistic rule upon the Afghani people, it does not differ dramatically from the current government.

Earlier this year, Karzai signed a bill into law that permits Shiite men to starve their wives if they refused to meet their husbands' sexual demands. Under this legislation, women must also get their husband's permission to work outside the home and give guardianship rights of children exclusively to men in the family.

And then there's last month's "democratic" election. Karzai's supporters were widely reported to have made a mockery of the democracy that his government was supposed to have ushered into Afghanistan. According to various news reports, widespread ballot box stuffing plagued the presidential contest.

Some of the cases were so flagrant that the ballot boxes at one empty polling place were full of completed ballots just an hour after it opened.

This is the democracy that American troops are fighting for in Afghanistan, while bin Laden and his top advisers continue to elude capture.

Obama should leave it to Afghanistan's warring factions to decide who will govern that forsaken land, and he should use the sizeable force of U.S. troops already in Afghanistan to wage a war of necessity - against Osama bin Laden.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A bad time for defenders of abused women

By DeWayne Wickham

This has not been a good stretch for defenders of abused and battered women. First, they learned of Phillip Garrido. Then they heard from Chris Brown.

Garrido, a creepy 58-year-old sexual predator, was arrested recently on charges that he held Jaycee Lee Dugard prisoner in his back yard for 18 years. During that time, police say, he fathered two children with Dugard, who was just 11 when he allegedly snatched her from a bus stop in South Lake Tahoe, Calif..

Those children, both girls, are now 11 and 15.

Police say Garrido pulled off this heinous crime while on parole after serving 12 years of a 50-year-to-life sentence for kidnapping and raping a 25-year-old woman in Nevada. And they say that, with help from his wife, he was able to keep Dugard captive even after being sent back to prison for five months for a parole violation.

Garrido's ability to prey upon Dugard even while under the supervision of a parole officer — and, for a time, having to wear an ankle bracelet — has to be disconcerting to those who advocate on behalf of abused women.

And then there's this.

Not long after Garrido was arrested, Chris Brown turned up on CNN's "Larry King Live." The 20-year-old R&B singer was there with his mother and lawyer to try to repair his damaged image and resurrect his faltering career after pleading guilty to brutally beating his girlfriend.

The victim of Brown's attack was Barbados-born singer Robyn Rihanna Fenty, known as Rihanna. According to a police report, Brown bashed Rihanna's head into the window of the Lamborghini he was driving and beat her bloody after she questioned him about a text message he had received from another woman.

Brown copped a plea to stay out of jail. A Los Angeles judge sentenced him to five years of probation and six months of community labor, which she generously allowed him to do in his home state of Virginia. But to get back into the good graces of the radio stations that had stopped playing his songs — and of the fans who had abandoned him — Brown needed to offer up a convincing apology for his bad behavior.

The CNN show gave him that opportunity. But even with his mom and lawyer at his side, Brown made a far-from-convincing pitch for absolution. For all of his efforts to sound contrite, Brown had difficulty admitting to the stark details of the physical abuse he had inflicted on Rihanna.

At one point during the interview, Larry King asked Brown what he thought of the picture of Rihanna's battered face that found its way onto the Internet.

"When I look at it now, it's just like, wow, like, I can't — I can't believe that — that actually happened," he answered. "It's — it just really like took a toll on me."

Oh, really? So who does he want us to think is the real victim here, the young woman he beat to a pulp, or him — for having to see the damage he did to her?

When King asked Brown if he remembered attacking Rihanna, the R&B singer stumbled badly.

"No. I don't — I don't — it's like — it's crazy to me," Brown said. "Like I was just — I'm like, wow."

Wow is right.

Those answers must have made advocates for victims of domestic abuse cringe. Brown sounded more confused than repentant, more startled over what was happening to him than sorry for what he did to Rihanna.

All of this must leave a lot of women wondering what it takes for men who batter women — and for the criminal justice system — to understand the seriousness of this crime.