Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A reason why Democrats should turn out in droves for Obama

By DeWayne Wickham

When President Obama rose to address the mostly black crowd at the Congressional Black Caucus’ awards dinner on Saturday, he knew the damage he wanted to mend with his speech extended far beyond the CBC’s 43 members and their black constituents.

Hoisted into the Oval Office three years ago by a well-crafted coalition of black, Hispanic, Asian and white voters, Obama’s message to the large gathering at the convention center, a short drive from the White House, was the opening salvo of an effort to re-energize his core supporters.

“Change,” was the mantra of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. But for many who voted for him then, the change hasn’t come fast enough — or has been missed by those who expect trumpets to blare every time Obama moves this nation closer to his goal of a more just society.

With a recent CBS News/New York Times Poll showing an 18 point gap between the enthusiasm of Democrats (26%) and Republicans (44%) for next year’s presidential election, Obama used his address to tout some of the things he has done for blacks, who have been hit hard by the current economic downturn. He pointed to the impact on blacks of the payroll tax cut he pushed through Congress for all workers; the Department of Education’s “Promise Neighborhoods,” an education-centered, community-based approach to ending poverty, and the ripple effect of his efforts to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers.

And then, invoking the memory of the civil rights struggle that made it possible for him and thousands of other blacks to obtain political office, the president told CBC members — some of whom have criticized him for not doing more to reduce a black unemployment rate that’s double that of whites — to help him beat back Republican opposition to his administration.

“Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We’ve got to work to do,” Obama said in a rousing charge that he’ll probably repeat to other wavering supporters. And he should, if for just one compelling reason.

The president’s greatest accomplishment, which he ought to mention in every speech to his core supporters, is what he’s done to reshape the federal judiciary. Nothing is likely to have a longer lasting impact on the interests of the people who put him in office than his appointments of federal judges. Nearly half of his nominees who have been confirmed to federal judgeships are women; 21% are African American; 11% Hispanic and 7% are Asian. Less than 30% of his judicial appointments have gone to white men, who hold the lion’s share of federal judgeships.

In the more than two centuries since the U.S. Supreme Court was created just four women have won confirmation to a seat on the nation’s highest court. Half of those women were nominated by Obama. He’s put the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court and doubled the number of Asians who are currently sitting on the federal bench.

This far exceeds the percentage of women and minorities George W. Bush put on the federal bench during his two terms in the White House and increases the chances that more balanced federal courts will protect civil rights gains, abortion rights and give a fairer hearing to immigration issues.

All of this, and the fear of a Republican president watering down these important gains, should be enough to get Obama’s core constituents to stop whining and turn out in record numbers on Election Day.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Obama is a smart, not weak, politician

By DeWayne Wickham

For much of his time in the White House, the rap against Barack Obama has been that he is a weak leader — a man who is a much better talker than doer when it comes to managing the nation’s affairs.

Don’t believe it.

For many of his critics, this knock against the nation’s first black president stems from his low-key approach to combating Republican opposition to virtually everything he does — and his passive response to the disrespect of GOP members, like those who called him a liar during a speech on the House floor, who wouldn’t take his call in middle of the debt ceiling crisis, and who referred to him as a “boy” and “tar baby.”

But while Obama ducked these skirmishes, he’s a more tenacious — and smarter in-fighter — than a lot of people think. Proof of this can be found in his recent address to a joint session of Congress, in which the president spelled out his plan to combat this nation’s painfully high unemployment rate.

Obama’s proposal — called the American Jobs Act — is good policy and a smart political tactic. In a disarming move, he took elements of the tax cuts Republicans obsess over and blended them in with an aggressive plan to spend $447 billion to help put people back to work.

Among other things, his plan calls for a payroll tax cut for small businesses, a tax credit for firms that hire military veterans and people who have been looking for work for more than six months. All of which will be paid for, Obama said, by federal spending cuts.

“There’s a bridge that needs repair between Ohio and Kentucky that’s on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America,” he said of a major rebuilding project that needs to be done on a road that connects the states of Congress’ top Republicans — House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

And there’s a “public transit project in Houston that will help clear up one of the worst areas of traffic in the country,” Obama said in urging Congress “to pass this jobs bill.”

How petty — and uncaring — will Republicans be if they block the president’s proposal from getting a fair hearing and a vote in both houses of Congress? How much harm will they do their party if they try to extract an ideological victory from Obama’s push for passage of his jobs bill? That’s the trap Obama has set for his foes.

While Obama hasn’t always fought the battles some of his constituents wanted him to wage, his reluctance — I’m convinced — has been a matter of strategy, not weakness. He ran as a candidate of “change” and once in office tried to temper the political backbiting in the nation’s capital.

But the GOP’s intransigence during the recent debt ceiling crisis has forced the president to be less conciliatory and more strategic in his dealing with congressional Republicans. Now Obama is taking the fight to them. And the contest for the hearts and minds of a nation frustrated by the partisan war in Washington is being framed by his plan to put America back to work.

“Regardless of the arguments we’ve had in the past, regardless of the arguments we will have in the future, this plan is the right thing to do right now. You should pass it,” Obama told Congress.

Like a commander who has outflanked an advancing enemy army, the president now waits to see if his opponents will seek a truce, or fight a suicidal battle.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

U.S. should cut deal for return of man tricked into being a spy

By DeWayne Wickham

When the FBI arrested 10 Russian spies last year, this country quickly traded them for four ailing men held by Russia and accused of being espionage agents for the United States and Britain.

It took just over a week for the U.S. government to cut the deal that sent the Russian agents, who had been in this country for more than a decade, to Moscow. After a brief appearance in a federal courtroom to plead guilty to a single charge of conspiring “to act as an agent of a foreign country” the Russian spooks were whisked from the country.

Of the four men who were released to the U.S. — all of them Russians — in return for this grand gesture, two were taken to Britain; the others landed in Washington and then disappeared in a caravan of black SUVs.

The U.S government should do the same for Alan Gross.

Seven months before the U.S.-Russia spy swap, Gross was arrested in Cuba and charged with committing “acts against the independence and territorial integrity” of that Communist nation. Gross worked for Development Alternatives, Inc., a U.S. State Department contractor. The charge against him stems from his efforts to provide satellite phones and unrestricted Internet access to some people in Cuba, whose government the United States has tried for more than half a century to topple.

Sentenced to 15 years in prison, Gross told an appeals court he had been a “trusting fool” and didn’t know his actions violated Cuban law, according to a transcript released recently by his American lawyer.

Maybe he didn’t, but the State Department must have.

By engaging the company that hired Gross to help implement its “Cuba democracy program,” the diplomats in Foggy Bottom surely knew the risks they were running in privatizing a portion of their efforts to bring regime change to that island nation. They had to have known, if caught, Gross would be treated like a spy.

Now, nearly two years after his arrest, Gross — reportedly in poor health — languishes in a Cuban prison. But he could be home in a few days if the U.S. will exchange the five Cuban spies it imprisoned 13 years ago for the 62-year-old Gross.

The so-called “Cuban Five” — espionage agents that Cuba had sent here to spy on Cuban exiles that want to overthrow the Castro regime — received sentences ranging from life to 15 years. One of them was accused of conspiracy in the 1996 shoot down of two U.S.-based civilian planes by Cuban MIG fighters. Cuba says those planes violated its air space — a claim that is denied by Brothers to the Rescue, the Cuban exile group that operated those flights.

Spying is a nasty business that, unfortunately, produces a lot of collateral damage. Keeping the Cuban Five in prison won’t bring back the lives lost in that shoot down. But swapping them for the ailing Gross could spare the life of a man who says he was tricked into the spy game.

Such a humanitarian gesture, probably, will only generate widespread resistance from those Cuba exiles who clamor for the U.S. to do for them what dissidents in Syria and Libya have taken to the streets of those countries to do for themselves. They mount their attacks on the Castro regime from trendy clubs in Miami Beach and the coffee shops of Miami’s Little Havana.

Gross should not be left to suffer a long prison term for their sake. He should be swapped for the Cuban Five with as much dispatch as was used to get those ailing spies out of Russia.