Co-authored by Jonathan Stone
The day after President Obama's State of the Union address last week, some 200 protestors, led by the Sierra Club, gathered outside the White House to voice their opposition to the Keystone XL Tar Sands pipeline. Many handcuffed themselves to the White House gates, and among the protestors were Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., his son Connor and the actress Daryl Hannah, who wound up being removed from the site in handcuffs by the police. On Sunday, approximately 40,000 rallied on The National Mall, according to Lucia Graves in her HuffPost article, "Climate Rally In Washington Brought Out 40,000 People, Organizers Estimate," which is believed to be the largest climate protest event in American history. Organizers from 350.org and the Sierra Club were thrilled that a movement had come together from numerous groups in 30 states to speak with one voice -- a coalition that continues to grow. Their unified message was simple -- "Forward on Climate" -- and their mission was to press the president to back his aggressive rhetoric on climate change with real action, since this was an issue that had moved back to the front burner in both his inaugural and S.O.T.U. speeches.
Mr. Obama had seemed to re-dedicate himself to moving forward on this issue, talking about investment in "clean energy" sources like wind, solar and water, yet in both speeches he also continued to promote "dirty energy" sources like coal, oil and gas, including calling for more leases for oil drilling and gas fracking. Surely he must know the terrible dangers this would present, especially to our pristine public lands, like those in the already beleaguered Arctic? The president boasted in the S.O.T.U. that we now import less oil, while producing more at home, but at what price? We have all clearly seen the catastrophic results of our dependency on fossil fuels in recent years, with extreme weather like the droughts in the Midwest and the violent storms that have ravaged the south and east, including superstorm Sandy, from which we will be recovering for years to come at incredible costs.
Mr. President, you can't have it both ways. A good act will not cancel out a lousy one, and supporting good and destructive energy sources simultaneously will do nothing to save our dying planet. This is nothing more than pandering to a special interest industry that cares only about boosting their profits at the expense of the rest of us. On the case already are Sens. Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders, who just last week introduced comprehensive legislation on this issue -- with significant input from Public Citizen -- that would address climate change on multiple and innovative levels. Yet even good legislation like this has little chance of success if it is being introduced in our bought-off government. We, the People, must make it happen.
The president did hit some high notes in the S.O.T.U., addressing issues of great concern to many constituencies -- a little something for everyone. He soared when he said, "We can't keep drifting from one crisis to the other," and he reached a high point in the debate on guns with his comment, "Gabby Giffords deserves a vote, the families of Newtown deserve a vote, the families of Aurora deserve a vote, the families of Oak Creek and Tucson and Blacksburg deserve a vote, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence, they deserve a simple vote. Yes, they do." He remarked that since the Newtown shootings, 1,000 more gun-related deaths have taken place. So many lives taken senselessly, with only the incredible pain and loss felt by their loved ones left behind. These victims -- and all Americans -- need more than just a vote on guns. They need to see strong regulations enacted -- a word not mentioned by Mr. Obama -- to rein in a renegade industry that is amoral about the products it peddles and is supported only by the lunatic fringe that is the NRA.
The president also addressed income disparity and the need to raise the minimum wage from its piddling $7.25 to $9 per hour, hinged to inflation. This issue certainly needed airing and action, but Mr. Obama's suggesting that implementation be completed by 2015 is simply too long for too many to wait. By the time the minimum wage reaches $10 per hour, it will only have the buying power of the late '60s. This is a good step forward, however, and we must get it done.
Mr. Obama supported education starting at the pre-K level and making it available for all children, and then making high school and college an experience that prepares them to become productive citizens who can earn a good living and support their families, attaining that elusive American Dream. Ways to achieve these goals included making college affordable, so that one is not saddled for decades paying off loans, and including programs that teach skills that will have value in this ever-expanding global economy. Our public schools, however, only mandate 180 days per year of schooling, which is too little. The summer months can certainly be more productively spent, and you can bet kids in China are not at leisure on the streets for three months of the year. This needs to be addressed if we are concerned about producing young people who will have a future and can rebuild our all-but-disappeared middle class. The foundation of success in their young lives starts in the classroom.
The president noted that comprehensive immigration reform is moving forward, and that is a very good thing that is long overdue. Immigrants, after all, are the fabric of our society who have brought much innovation to our shores, and they will continue to do so. Giving immigrants a pathway to citizenship will only enhance their contributions to our nation's future, if done sensibly and humanely.
As for the rising cost of health care, Mr. Obama seemed to attribute it to the fact that aging baby boomers are entering Medicare. Not quite true, Mr. President, as the high cost is also due to the fact that you gave Big Pharma a delicious deal in trade for their support of the Affordable Care Act (which now even the president refers to as "Obamacare"), making drug prices non-negotiable. Meanwhile, hospitals, the V.A. and insurance companies can negotiate drug prices. According to economist Dean Baker, Medicare spends $50 billion a year on prescription drugs alone, and Americans in general are spending 10 times more than they need to.
You will have to go back to the drafting table on this issue, Mr. President, as the ever-increasing costs of health care are hitting all segments of the population, with co-pays doubling in two years, a steep rise in deductibles and premiums, and fewer benefits for your buck than before, with ever more costs being shifted to the so-called "insured." All of this has resulted in too many Americans -- even those with insurance -- cutting back on their use of health services, due to the high costs. Frankly, Mr. President, spending 18 percent of our national GDP on health care is just nuts.
Unfortunately, the ACA has missed the ball on many of the real issues affecting these increased healthcare costs. Certainly there is little incentive for corporations to provide health benefits to their employees, as they see the "benefits" of moving more employees into ACA-Medicaid subsidized plans. Meanwhile, those 30 states with Republican governors will surely start de-funding services following the initial three years after implementation, when the Federal government stops picking up the tab for the states' Medicaid bills. Indeed, many states are already litigating to opt out of the ACA. As for those health care exchanges -- which will begin next year -- providing competition in pricing of plans? Forget it. The insurers have been consolidating with mergers for years, so there are fewer and fewer choices between the handful of insurance companies that control the market, and the ability to shop for lower-priced plans will be limited at best. Even if better deals can be found, the benefits will be reflective of the prices.
The solution to this inefficient hodgepodge of a health care system is clear: We must move towards a single-payer system, as called for in legislation like H.R. 676 (Improved and Expanded Medicare For All), which was reintroduced last week in Congress by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI). Let that be your legacy, Mr. President. America can finally join those 28 other industrial nations and deliver a real national health program, providing better healthcare at significantly lower costs, and not this half-baked measure that will unravel in a couple of years when it become completely unaffordable. Direct your next four years to achieving this goal, Mr. President.
On slashing "entitlements," let's also get that language straight: Social Security and Medicare are earned benefits, not "entitlements," so please stop feeding into the arguments of the self-proclaimed "deficit hawks." It was noteworthy last week that 107 members of Congress contacted the president that they will not support cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid - vital, popular and highly successful programs that are shining examples of our government's commitment to the People. If anything, Social Security monthly payouts should rise significantly -- mine recently went up by a piddling $12 per month for this year, while my apartment costs have jumped close to 20 percent in two years, with another increase on the way. Indeed, for two out of the past four years, there have been no increases in cost of living Social Security benefits, and the average annual payout in Social Security benefits is about $14,000. Increasing payouts could act as a stimulus program for seniors, keeping that money mainly in the communities in which they live, going for food, housing and health care costs -- all major expenses to those on fixed incomes that leave little left for other necessities. A rise would certainly help to pump up the economy.
The president's window of opportunity over the next four years, in which he can turn some of his progressive agenda into action, will be limited. According to presidential historian Michael Beschloss, about eight months will be available for action on these issues before the next election cycle begins. On top of that, the president will become a lame duck in the final few years of his presidency, so with time being of the essence, the following action should be taken right now, Mr. President, as the People will support you on this bold initiative:
Press for an amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision and champion a move to public funding of campaigns. It was a major mistake to recently convert your former campaign apparatus into Organizing for Action and setting it up as a 501(c)(4) that will accept funding from corporations and lobbyists. The irony of your professing to be an agent of change while still engaging in the same-old, same-old tactics of employing shady, anonymous donations to support your political agenda has not gone unnoticed, Mr. President. Joining the special interests in the swamp is not the American way. How will that help you to achieve your lofty goals laid out in your inaugural speech and the S.O.T.U.? You are only setting up barriers to achieving success.
Now is the time for you to become the president we thought we were electing in '08, Mr. Obama. Stop with the mixed messages already.