Friday, June 7, 2013

Report Card Time for Government

In public education, the calendar year historically begins after Labor Day and ends soon after Memorial Day. Having spent over half my life on that schedule, my years end in June. A review of the major stories should help me complete report cards for our government.

On September 11 of last year, protests and an attack on the U.S. Embassy relating to an anti-Muslim video erupted in Cairo, Egypt. There were also reports of an attack on a consulate in Benghazi. In the days following, attacks on U.S. Embassies relating to the video occurred in more than a dozen countries. In this climate, President Obama and his spokespersons attempted to address the tragic loss of life of U.S. Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans in Libya as well as the ongoing threats of violence using language condemning both the attacks and the makers of the inflammatory video.

Mitt Romney and other Republicans accused the President of sympathizing with the attackers, then of incompetence in responding to the attacks, and finally in the months that followed, of falsely attributing the attacks to protesters instead of an organized terrorist group. Worse than Watergate, some pundits and politicians screamed. After the recent release of e-mails detailing how the infamous talking points were collaboratively revised, the satirical fake news website, The Onion, might have written this headline: “White House Releases Bland, Inaccurate Statement: CIA, State Department remove all references that make them look bad”

In October, Hurricane Sandy swept up the East Coast killing almost 300 in seven countries. It was only a category 2 when it reached the Northeast, but storm surges combined with high tides causing massive flooding.  It was second only to Katrina in the cost of the damage it wreaked in 24 states, including massive power outages and damage in West Virginia.

Coming one week before a Presidential election, there were inevitable political effects. The Bush administration’s inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina had been the beginning of the end of his administration. He had reacted forcefully, deploying all the nation’s resources to the threat of terrorism, yet with thousands of vulnerable citizens stranded without food, water, or toilets, he defended his FEMA director, saying, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!”  In contrast, the Obama administration’s response to Superstorm Sandy was early, coordinated, and effective, drawing the warm praise of plainspoken Republican Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie. Headline: “Climate Change a Factor in Severity of Storm: Christie bucks Party, thanks President for doing a good job on recovery effort.”

In November, Obama was reelected. Republicans were caught by surprise, confident that no president could win reelection with such high unemployment. In disarray, the party was torn between those who say the problem was the candidate and those who say it is time to stop being obstructionist, start working with the president, and try to win over Latinos, the fastest growing demographic group in the country. Possible headline in The Onion: “Rich White Men Spend Election Season Criticizing Poor, Unemployed, Seniors, Immigrants, Women, and Gays: Ask why didn’t they vote for us?”

A month later, the nation was horrified by the murder of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary. A bill to reduce gun violence through tightened regulations looked possible for the first time since the Brady handgun bill was passed and signed by Bill Clinton. Headline: “Assault Rifles With Large Capacity Clips Must be Kept Out of Hands of Emotionally Unstable: Every American home needs at least one for self-defense”

As the new year dawned, the “fiscal cliff” threatened increased taxes for nearly everyone and across the board spending cuts known as the Sequester. It was averted when a minority of Republicans voted with Democrats to raise tax rates for those with incomes over $400,000 and delay the Sequester until March 1, hoping for a budget deal. However, Tea Party Republicans got their mojo back and forced their fellow Republicans to hold the line, allowing the cuts to go into effect. The increased taxes on wealthy Americans haven’t destroyed the economy as Republican candidates have for years claimed they would. Headline: “Republicans Force Trillion Dollar Cuts in Government Spending Threatening Hundreds of Thousands of Jobs: Our agenda is to create jobs, Republican leadership proclaims.”

In March, the Civil War in Syria entered its third year. A brutal dictator who would not acquiesce to reforms when citizens protested peacefully is being supported by Russia and Iran. At least 80,000 have died with no end in sight. Having instituted policies to end two wars he inherited, Obama bides his time, waiting for international consensus, despite a few Republicans trying to push him to intervene militarily. Headline: “Arab Nation’s Civil War Becomes Sectarian Conflict: Dictator blames terrorists, Israel, and the United States.”

On April 15, two homemade bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and wounding hundreds. An American city entered lockdown as police in military garb went house to house in some neighborhoods in a made-for-TV manhunt. The two Chechen immigrant brothers allegedly responsible, one a naturalized U.S. citizen, gave anti-immigration reform advocates a security argument to bolster their case. Headline: “After Terrorist Bombing, American Citizens Allow Police to Protect Them.”

In May, three huge stories emerged. One featured a master of the theatrical on the world stage, North Korea, threatening to start a nuclear conflagration.  In another, a unit of the IRS was found to have targeted “social welfare” groups with “Tea Party” in their names for extra scrutiny, thinking they just might be engaging in politics. With a House Committee making one more attempt to make something out of Benghazi, and the news that AP reporters phone records had been seized by the Justice Department in a leak investigation, pundits and media declared a trifecta of scandals that might be Obama’s Waterloo. But by the end of the month, it was deadly tornados of historic proportions that grabbed our attention. Headline: “North Korea, Benghazi, IRS Targeting, and Seizing of AP Phone Records No Longer Newsworthy: Could overwhelming majority of scientists possibly be right about climate change?”

We live in a world in which it’s hard to decide what headline grabbing news is truly significant. When a terrorist or other maniacal murderer succeeds, we are justifiably outraged and terrorized. We may want lawmakers or police to better protect us. But every day thirty people are shot and killed in the U.S. with guns, and Congress cannot find the courage to tighten background checks or limit high capacity magazines. By opposing almost everything the President suggests, the Republican Party has become a party of extremists. They get failing grades and Not Satisfactory for Works Well with Others.

Presidents are always attacked by their political enemies when problems occur within government. Do they act quickly and with integrity to investigate, assign appropriate blame, and punish those responsible? Or do they cover up and deny? Obama has proven to be in the former category. He acts decisively, but not until he has the facts. Those responsible are fired or prosecuted after appropriate investigation. He would rather keep government secrets and behind the scenes deliberations private, but when he has to, he releases them, and we see them for what they are: the efforts of earnest government employees to do their jobs, though sometimes making grievous errors in judgment.  Our President is working for us every day: trying to improve the economy, create jobs, improve our infrastructure, and keep us safe in a dangerous world. This is why we reelected him. This is why none of the so-called scandals have damaged him severely. This is why the Republicans, if they want the opportunity to govern again, should work with him instead of against him.

We have to give President Obama low marks for setting unrealistic goals for his first term: he thought if he offered legislation Republicans had supported in the past, they would vote for it. He gets an A for effort, even though we are disappointed that so many important issues remain unsolved: gun violence, immigration, and a “Grand Bargain” to undo the sequester, close tax loopholes, reduce deficits, and insure the health of Medicare and Social Security. 

But what grade do we, the voters, get? Have we done everything we can to put the right people in office? Can we do more to help educate our fellow citizens on the issues? Another election is just around the corner in 2014. If we want the President to solve problems, we need to put lawmakers in office who will support his agenda. If we are to earn an A, this is the headline we need to see: “House Goes to Democrats: Filibuster proof Senate insures President will complete agenda.” It’s too much of a fantasy to wish for this one: “Republicans Vow to Work with President to Solve Nation’s Problems.”

Paul Epstein, a retired teacher, is a musician and writer living in Charleston