Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Week Fifteen

National Scene    5/6 – 5/12/09

By Linnie Frank Bailey

It was a week of significant meetings for President Barack Obama, beginning with a trilateral conference with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan to discuss stabilizing the region, and ending with a first-of-its-kind coming together of all of the major players involved in healthcare, to discuss reform.  Not to go unnoticed, was an Oval Office chit-chat between Obama, Al Sharpton, and Newt Gingrich to discuss education reform. 

This President is surely building bridges!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Bringing Pakistan and Afghanistan to the Table

The President was joined by Vice-President Joe Biden in a meeting with President Karzai of Afghanistan and President Zardari of Pakistan.  Initially, President Obama met separately with each leader, followed by a trilateral conference.  Pakistan and Afghanistan are considered critical to America’s ‘war on terror’ and the President signaled the importance by saying, “We meet today as three sovereign nations joined by a common goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan…to achieve that goal, we must deny them the space to threaten the Pakistani, Afghan, or American people.”

Obama, who has committed additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, announced future steps there to: grow the economy, develop alternatives to the country’s drug trade, and support free and open national elections. Addressing internal strife within Pakistan, Obama offered “lasting support to democratic institutions, while helping the government confront the insurgents who are the single greatest threat to the Pakistani state.”

First Lady Attends TIME 100 Gala

First Lady Michelle Obama attended and gave remarks at the TIME 100 Annual Dinner at the Rose Jazz Center in New York City. Honorees were presented with the Time 100 Most Influential People Awards.  The First Lady spoke of the need to nurture a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs who will lend their talents towards addressing social problems in communities across America.

Obama Creates ‘Social Innovation Fund’

Fulfilling a campaign pledge to support non-profit programs ‘that work’, the President announced that he would ask Congress in the FY2010 budget to provide $50 million in seed capital for his Social Innovation Fund. The Fund will identify the most promising, results-oriented non-profit programs and expand their reach throughout the country.   Obama has stated repeatedly that “government alone cannot solve our nation’s problems” and that the country must be “innovative” in finding new solutions to old problems.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Cutting Government Waste: Line-by-Line

The Administration continues to review existing Federal spending programs and has suggested more than one-hundred terminations or reductions that take nearly $17 billion off the federal government’s bottom line. While acknowledging that each program has supporters, the Administration has identified some that should not be funded because they either do not accomplish the goals set for them, do not do so efficiently, or do a job already done by another initiative. Some of the programs suggested for elimination include:

  • Educational attaché, Paris, France -- $632,000  (The Department of Education can use e-mail, video conferencing, and modest travel to replace a full-time representative to UNESCO in Paris, France.)
  • Even Start Program -- $66 million  (The most recent evaluation found no difference between families in the program and those not in it. Strengthening early childhood education is accomplished through significant investments in proven, more effective programs such as Head Start, Early Head Start, and the Early Learning Challenge Fund.)
  • Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation -- $1 million  (Due to high overhead, the Foundation would spend only 20 percent of its appropriation on the fellowships it awards.)
  • Advanced Earned Income Tax Credit -- $125 million – (This program benefits very few taxpayers, and has an extremely high error rate:  GAO found that 80 percent of recipients did not meet at least one of its requirements.)
  • Javits Gifted and Talented Education Program -- $7 million  (Grants from this program go to only 15 school districts nationwide, and there are no empirical measures to judge their effectiveness)
  • Public Broadcasting Grants -- $5 million  (USDA made these grants to support rural public broadcasting stations in their conversions to digital broadcasting.  That transition is now almost complete.)
  • Rail Line Relocation Grants -- $25 million  (This program, duplicative of a merit-based program, is loaded with earmarks.)

The Administration stresses these steps are part of a larger effort to change how Washington does business and put the nation’s fiscal house in order.

Sharpton, Gingrich, and Obama – Huh?

“You're probably the only President who can make this happen,” the Reverend Al Sharpton told President Obama as he and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich met with the President in the Oval Office. The far-left civil rights activist, and the far-right former House speaker, shared a sofa as they discussed improving education.  Expressing the need for a spotlight on the nation’s educational issues, Obama joked, “these are the two guys who know more than anybody how to get attention.”

The former adversaries were joined by  New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to discuss ways to bridge the education gap between Black and White students. “We have a crisis of inequality in this nation,” said Sharpton, noting that the problem persists despite the 55th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.  “There must be a commitment in this country to equal education," he continued. "There can be no sacred cows.”

Gingrich, an advocate of Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy, (which Obama has criticized), chose instead to focus on common ground, stating “The President has stood up for charter schools and he has made it clear that he believes in teacher accountability.”

Some areas where they did come together include: Paying teachers more for improved student performance, getting rid of poorly performing teachers, and ending “social promotion,” the practice of moving underperforming students to the next grade to keep them with their peers.

The National Day of Prayer

The first Thursday in May, was deemed the National Day of Prayer in 1952, however it was not celebrated publicly in the White House until former President George W. Bush  held religious events—with prayers led by religious leaders from various faiths. Unlike his predecessor, President Obama did not hold a White House special event, opting instead to mark the day with a proclamation. His spokesperson, Robert Gibbs commented that the President decided against a public display saying, “Prayer is something that the President does every day.” 

Friday, May 8, 2009

Town Hall in Spanish

President Barack Obama held the first-ever Spanish language town hall meeting to address the Hispanic community's concerns on the impact of the H1N1 virus. The town hall featured Administration officials including Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, and an audience of health care workers, community activists, and concerned citizens. The event was moderated by Univision Anchor Edna Schmidt.  The President joking about his own limitations with speaking Spanish said, “I'm very proud of this first White House town hall meeting conducted entirely in Spanish….except for my part…..I'm kind of messing up the whole thing!”

Re-Training Workers – Visit the Website Opportunity.Gov

Addressing the need for unemployed workers to find training for new jobs, the President described a woman who lost her job as a physician's receptionist, but kept afloat with unemployment benefits and used Pell Grants to become a registered nurse through a community college. Saying, “far too many Americans are denied that opportunity,” Obama gave the following example: “Say an unemployed factory worker wants to upgrade his skills to become a mechanic or a technician.  In many states, that worker might lose temporary financial support if he enrolls in a training program.  And to make matters worse, unemployment might mean he can't afford higher education, and he likely won't qualify for federal help simply because he may have made a decent salary a year ago, before he was laid off.”  He continued, “Well, that doesn't make much sense for our economy or our country.  So we're going to change it.  First, we'll open new doors to higher education and job training programs to recently laid-off workers who are receiving unemployment benefits.  And if those displaced workers need help paying for their education, they should get it -- and that's why the next step is to make it easier for them to receive Pell Grants.”

The President also discussed the role community colleges can play in retraining unemployed workers, encouraging people to “take advantage of one of America's underappreciated assets -- our community colleges.  These schools offer practical education and technical training, and they're increasingly important centers of learning where Americans can prepare for the jobs of the future.”

The President highlighted a new website for the unemployed, created by the Department of Education and the Department of Labor called opportunity.gov.

Reopening of Statue of Liberty’s Crown.

Following the firing of an aide who authorized an ill-advised flyover to take pictures of Air Force One with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced the reopening of the exhibit’s crown on July 4th.  (The crown has been closed since the 9-11 attacks). Access to the crown will be limited to 10 people at a time.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sykes Socks-It-To-Them

This Sunday morning found Washington abuzz discussing comments made by comedian Wanda Sykes at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner the night before.  Some feigned shock and displeasure, while others thought Sykes’ pointed jabs, particularly those aimed at Rush Limbaugh and former Vice-President Dick Cheney, were right on target. During the routine, Sykes herself summed up the reaction to some of her jokes by saying: “You’re not laughing now, but you’ll be retelling this tomorrow!”

Showing that he too can crack a joke, the President got high marks for his humor and put to rest once and for all criticisms of his wife’s wardrobe, saying the First Lady “has a right to bare arms.”

Monday, May 11, 2009

Historic, Unprecedented Meeting to Address Healthcare

President Obama made a major step toward health care reform by bringing together all of the major players and getting them to agree to changes that can bring about savings of more than $2 trillion on health care costs. Representatives from hospitals, the insurance industry, medical device and pharmaceutical companies, labor and physicians came to the White House to discuss major steps to lower health care costs across the board.

The President, calling the first-of-its-kind meeting “remarkable,” explained the significance of having so many diverse stakeholders at the table:  “The groups who are here today represent different constituencies with different sets of interests. They've not always seen eye to eye with each other or with our government on what needs to be done to reform health care in this country. In fact, some of these groups were among the strongest critics of past plans for comprehensive reform…But what's brought us all together today is a recognition that we can't continue down the same dangerous road we've been traveling for so many years; that costs are out of control; and that reform is not a luxury that can be postponed, but a necessity that cannot wait.”

The President invoked the memory of his own mother’s challenges with the health care system—a point he made often during the campaign—by recalling:  “As I've mentioned before….my mother passed away from ovarian cancer a little over a decade ago. And in the last weeks of her life, when she was coming to grips with her own mortality and showing extraordinary courage just to get through each day, she was spending too much time worrying about whether her health insurance would cover her bills. So I know what it's like to see a loved one who is suffering, but also having to deal with a broken health care system. I know that pain is shared by millions of Americans all across this country.”

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