Category Archives: U.S. Politics

Mind the gap

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The unifying lustre of U.S. Independence Day celebrations was short lived this year. After a long weekend of flag flying, naturalization ceremonies, patriotic parades, home-grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, and fantastical firework shows, it was quickly back to the new normal of short-term thinking, special-interest legislating, and deadlock politics in the Nation’s Capital. And yet, after a fortnight of brutal political mudwrestling, there are now faint glimmers this week of a possible new modus operandi, at least in the U.S. Senate.

The most flagrant down grade was reserved for the meekest in U.S. society—those dependent on food stamps to feed themselves and their families. One in five Americans relies, in some way, on government food aid, such as food stamps or free or reduced school lunches; half of those who receive food aid are young people. These figures are stark reminders of how precarious life is for many in this wealthy but socially very unequal country.

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a farm bill that provides substantial subsidies to agribusiness. To placate conservatives, the bill was stripped of its customary simultaneous provision of billions of dollars to the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Republicans say that food stamp funding will be taken up later, in subsequent legislation. But the fact remains that conservatives are fixated on addressing the spike in the size in the food stamp program. Reflecting the devastating impact of the 2008 recession, the percentage of the population using food stamps has apparently risen from 8.7 in 2007 to 15.2 in the most current data. Conservatives want to reduce this heightened dependence on government; they feel that private, perhaps church-based, organisations should rather be meeting such needs.

The food stamp exclusion came on the heels of Congressional Republicans choosing not to extend government-subsidized interest rates on student loans, thereby letting rates double. Their preference is instead for rates to reflect the market. While bipartisan efforts to produce a way forward are underway in the Senate, the uncertainty has been most debilitating for those loan-dependent students trying to plan for the imminent academic year.

The prospects for long-needed immigration reform also nosedived after Independence Day. House Speaker John Boehner said he wouldn’t place a Senate-passed bill on comprehensive immigration reform before the U.S. House of Representatives as it lacked support from a majority of Republican House members. Instead, House Republicans expect to address immigration reform in a piecemeal fashion. They plan to pass aspects of the Senate bill they endorse—such as strengthening border security, permitting more visas for high-skill immigrants, and possibly providing a solution for “Dreamers”, young people brought to the United States illegally as children who now identify exclusively as Americans. And they will likely ignore the part of the Senate bill that is anathema to them but nonnegotiable for Democrats—the “path to citizenship”, whereby 11 million illegal residents can qualify in a long, expensive, and time-consuming process to become full-fledged American citizens. Addressing immigration reform in this bite-sized way will, in all likelihood, kill the initiative for yet another cycle. And some say that is conservatives’ real goal: to deny President Obama legislative success in yet another arena that has defied reform despite successive attempts over the last decades.Happy birthday America!

The noted Congressional actions reveal a conservative strategy that is narrow, cynical, and ideological. In their purist zeal to limit the size of government, lower taxes for Americans, and reduce the budget deficit, House Republicans are hurting those in U.S. society who most depend on government. It is hard too to avoid noticing that the groups being treated so dismissively by these recent actions formed the core of the national majority that elected and then reelected Barack Obama as president: Latinos, African-Americans, young people, and (unmarried) women.

Given the reality of demographic trends, it is especially surprising that House Republicans are willing to follow a politically ruinous strategy by not addressing their “Hispanic vote problem” through all-encompassing immigration reform. Their argument that they need to ensure better turnout of their key constituency—the white working class—while also trying to attract those more inclined to vote Democratic is short sighted. This will resign the Republican Party to having voting strength in particular states, counties, and cities, but being unable to compete for national tickets. Losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections has apparently not yet hammered home the message. The recent narrowly focused actions of House Republicans will only further marginalize their party.

The disconnection between more moderate leaders of the Republican Party and zealous U.S. House of Representatives’ members should be noted. Mainstream Republicans, like many in the business community, endorse immigration reform, including the “path to citizenship”. Even former President George W. Bush came out forcefully in public recently in support of comprehensive immigration reform.

The most encouraging news of the week was the breakthrough deal in the U.S. Senate whereby seven of President Obama’s long-delayed nominations to senior positions in the executive branch will be confirmed, although two nominees will have to be fresh choices. This positive development resulted from a strategy of brinkmanship by both Senate Democrats and Republicans over the filibuster, a much-treasured tool for the minority party in the Senate. May this sorely needed compromise portend a new style in all things congressional—or at least senatorial.

In addition to starting to confirm more agreed-upon candidates for executive office, today a bipartisan group of senators also concurred on a way forward on government-subsidized student loans. Although today’s Senate proposal will have to be reconciled with the House version, agreement now appears likely on rates marginally higher than previously but lower than the market rate. This agreement will hopefully be reached before students will need to lock in loan rates for the new academic year.

Despite 237 years of independence and freedom, American democracy is still a work in progress.

A whimsical patriot

In an in-between season

DSC_0047America is in transition. As with the 9/11 attacks, the jarring, life-sapping bomb blasts at the Boston Marathon finish line on Monday are likely to change America. Unlike the predictable giving way of blooms on flowering trees and shrubs to green foliage in spring, what the past week’s events will herald in American society is not clear. The impact on President Barack Obama’s second-term agenda is also uncertain.

For the most part, the initial response has been a vigorous and aggressive re-assertion of America’s values and most fundamental beliefs. Speaking in Boston on Thursday, President Obama, who lived in Boston himself as a student, noted, “We may be momentarily knocked off our feet, but we’ll pick ourselves up.” While it was impossible for Bostonians to continue as normal much of the week, affirmations of normality could be observed here in the D.C. metro area—although security was tightened around public buildings, especially after the unsettling news of ricin-tainted letters being sent to the president and a senator. Friday was a bizarre day for all, even for those not in Boston or directly affected by the shutdown and “sheltering in place”. One could follow, in real time, the hunt for the remaining bomber. Some media halted regular programming to provide ongoing coverage, making for surreal, unsettling juxtapositions. One continued one’s scheduled activities while listening to and following media to learn the latest developments. Perhaps it was my imagination, but people seemed extra friendly, polite, and civil in their interactions with others on Friday. Life felt so fragile and delicate.

As the wife of a marathoner, my children and I have stood at the finish lines of many marathons. I know and appreciate the mood and emotions of people waiting at the end of these races: anticipation to see your special runner; joy (and utter relief) when you do see him/her; pride and marvel as you consider what all the runners have endured to reach that point; and enjoyment of the self-evident camaraderie among the runners who have all challenged themselves. The horrendous end to this year’s Boston Marathon has affected me in an intimate way. The death of the eight-year-old boy waiting for his dad to finish the race—with his sister, who subsequently lost a leg, and mother, who was also severely injured—is especially gutting. It could easily have been my family waiting at that marathon close.

The end of a marathon always involves such a complex flash of emotions. It is difficult to comprehend adding Boston’s horror, panic, and fear to the mix. One can only be impressed by the incredible bravery, compassion, and empathy that so many showed in Boston to their fellow runners and spectators when confronted with such gratuitous and unexpected mayhem.

One wonders whether some will now urge the adoption of further security measures for public gatherings such as marathons. Yet taking steps to scrutinize people before allowing access to public events could provoke a backlash and resistance to further intrusions on people’s freedoms. More security measures for such events might not be either cost effective or workable. It will be fascinating to watch how the public debate about this unfolds.

It is always said that America is a society of immigrants and laws. That the bombers were naturalized Americans of Chechen ethnicity and Moslem faith who arrived here on asylum visas is fodder for those campaigning against immigration reform. Quite coincidentally, comprehensive legislation on reforming U.S. immigration policies was presented to the American public this week (before the identities of the Boston bombers became known). A bipartisan group of eight senators has worked on this package for months, and their proposals for a way forward were eagerly awaited. Awareness of demographic trends in U.S. society and the present tendency of Hispanic communities to support the Democratic Party over the Republican Party make both parties more favourably disposed to tackling immigration reform.

Yet for both parties, immigration reform has profound implications. Not succeeding in getting immigration reform adopted would be disastrous for President Obama’s second administration. Indeed, passage of such reforms is a centerpiece of his second-term agenda. For the Republican Party, immigration reform is the quintessential wedge issue. There is no other issue that could splinter the party like immigration reform. The Boston bombers not being native-born Americans is a new complicating factor, with some already suggesting that all immigration should be stopped while immigration reform is debated.

The other political complication from the week was the rejection on Wednesday of a procedural step that would have allowed consideration of a bipartisan measure in the Senate to expand background checks on gun purchasers. It is noteworthy that expanding background checks has majority support in the Senate (54 to 46), the categorical backing of the White House, and the emphatic support of the majority of Americans according to public opinion polls. The procedural measure needed a “super majority” of 60 votes to pass, yet the National Rifle Association was able to prevent the measure from getting the six additional votes it needed for the background check measure even to be considered. Ironically, the majority vote would have been sufficient to pass the measure had the Senate actually been voting on the bill.

Will the minority that rejected even considering background checks for gun purchasers be the same minority that coalesces around rejecting immigration reform? Will those of this minority also stand in the way of progress on tax reform and reducing the budget imbalance, the other big issue of Obama’s second-term agenda? If so, what will be the verdict of American voters in the 2014 mid-term elections, the campaigns for which are effectively already underway?

Right after Boston, Obama declared that, “There are no Republicans or Democrats; we are Americans united in concern.” As the innocence of spring blossoms gives way to the grimy humidity of a Washington summer, one has to expect the ideological and political battles will heat up too.

Go take a hike

Potomac Overlook Regional ParkPotomac Overlook Regional Park is soul food for this African. Walking in the park’s forests gives a smidgeon of the sensation of being in untrammeled nature and away from it all—despite being in a densely populated area close to the heartbeat of one of the world’s most powerful cities. I try to go there as often as possible, and always emerge refreshed and energized. I’ve blogged about it previously: it’s one of the places where observing deer is exhilarating rather than exasperating. Seeing them there transforms us humans from beleaguered gardeners into awestruck visitors. Park woodlands are where deer belong.

Apart from wildlife and the trees, the other appealing aspect of Potomac Overlook Regional Park is the gradient. I enjoy the way the forests slope down to the Potomac River. So it was perhaps inevitable that someone would hatch a plan to develop the park’s forested bluffs along the Potomac into a commercial zip line venture.

The suggested plans also included “expansion of the park entrance and additional parking, construction of a new amphitheater/stage area, an urban agriculture plot, a youth group camping area, and improvements to the birds of prey shelter”.

Having two thrill-loving teenagers and having experienced myself the pleasure of such canopy tours—in South Africa’s Magaliesberg—I’m not averse to zip lining. It’s great fun! However, the notion of developing so dramatically one of the remaining, relatively untouched woodlands in the metro area is simply horrifying. Washington residents, human and animal alike, need a place such as Potomac Overlook Regional Park to help stay sane. The idea of tampering with it reminded me of Joni Mitchell’s “pav[ing] paradise to put up a parking lot”.

Happily, many in the community were similarly appalled at the idea of changing so many aspects of this treasure of a park.

A meeting on March 19, this past Tuesday, in a church hall adjoining the park was overflowing with indignant, vocal, and very organized park lovers. They had flooded the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority with emails, letters, and phone calls since the NVRPA authorized “planning and implantation” of the projects at a November 15, 2012 meeting and then presented revised plans at a February 26, 2013 public meeting.

At the outset of Tuesday’s meeting, NVRPA officials announced that they rescinded their November 15, 2012 authorization to plan and implement the projects. They admitted to “eating a big slice of humble pie”, and noted the “force of the community” and the “power of public opinion”. Using a buzz phrase that the Obama administration has contributed to Washington lexicon, they promised to “hit reset”.

It is a remarkable turnaround and a breath of fresh air to hear officials admitting to miscalculation and error. Oh that all public officials or managers were so responsive to those whose interests they ostensibly serve.

In their campaign to get NVRPA board members to change their mind, the activist park users reminded all that the NVRPA itself had declared “the mission of Potomac Overlook Regional Park is to provide a protected woodland sanctuary, in order to preserve environmental quality and species diversity; to provide environmental and cultural education, stressing the relationship between all living organisms and to provide a natural setting in which to enjoy low impact recreational activities and physical exercise.”

Beware any entity that tries to implement a measure in a community such as this that doesn’t have broad-based support. In a fair generalization, many Washington area residents are over-educated, overachieving, incredibly determined people who know how to organize and get their opinion across. Don’t mess with them, or cross them. A well-informed and highly opinionated citizenry lives here.

As usual, the source of the problem was a search for revenue. Potomac Overlook Regional Park, the largest park in Arlington County, is clearly not a moneymaking enterprise. Indeed, it is documented to be one of the revenue drains for the NVRPA, although it is not the biggest money loser among the parks.

NVRPA officials acknowledged it was a mistake to pursue turning such a nature education park into a revenue stream without better community outreach and engaging earlier with the public.

The furor around Potomac Overlook Regional Park is an instructive example of the weight that public opinion should be play in policymaking. Policymakers ignore the views of those they serve at their peril. If only this type of pragmatic, consensual politics could be practiced at the federal and state level as well as it was this past week in Arlington County.

But it is not enough to merely solicit public opinion. Government officials must also listen to that public opinion and react accordingly. Public officials’ contrite apologies can be even more refreshing than a walk in the woods.

 

Tech tools: Paths to participation?

This past Valentine’s Day at my daughter’s school led me to thinking about whether all the technology tools now available really do–or do not–increase participation.

The PTA organizes staff appreciation lunches throughout the school year, one of which is traditionally on Valentine’s Day. Well before these lunches, an email from the PTA goes out to parents soliciting suggested contributions. This is linked to an electronic sign-up site, where folk can add their names to the categories of needs for the event. And then the promised items should be delivered on the appropriate day.

Do these broad appeals elicit different people participating each time? Or do the same “usual suspects” respond and contribute each time? I surveyed the current PTA school directory of family names and contact details: Nearly all families provided an email address as a contact point (only a small minority opt out of being in the directory), so the universe of potential participants in an event such as the Valentine’s Day staff appreciation lunch is very large. It would be revealing to know if the same families are repeat participants in these events or if different families step forward to contribute.

Two other experiences that same week reinforced this interest in who is engaging and who is not. Our landline rang about an hour and a half before President Barack Obama was to deliver his State of the Union address. Caller ID showed the incoming call to be from “U S Captl”. We usually ignore phone calls when it is unclear who is calling, but you can’t blame me for being curious that night. Who would be calling us at that time on that particular night—from the U.S. Capitol?

The call was from our congressman’s office. It was completely unexpected and unsolicited. A recording by an aide to Congressman Jim Moran invited immediate participation in a live telephone discussion with the congressman on various issues. I decided to stay on the line, intrigued by how something like this would work. Congressman Moran first addressed themes thought likely to be in President Obama’s State of the Union speech. And then he took about six to eight questions. Constituents who wished to ask a question were instructed to punch in a code. When they asked their question, they became audible to all, while the rest of us remained mute.

The most surprising part of this technology experience was that the outreach was routed through our landline, yesteryear’s technology.

Minutes after he had finished delivering the State of Union address to a national television audience, President Obama spoke to supporters through an online conference call. To connect to this online opportunity with the president, you had to have signed up beforehand with Organizing for Action, the nonprofit organization derived from Obama’s reelection campaign that is trying to mobilize community (and financial) support for his legislative priorities. President Obama had participated in a similar massive conference call with supporters a few days after his reelection last November.

President Obama and Congressman Moran targeted different audiences and used different tools to reach them. Nevertheless, I do wonder how many people were caught in the intersection of both these outreach efforts. How many engaged American voters participated in both of those opportunities? The congressman’s initiative was unsolicited (yes, I could have put the phone down) and participation in the president’s was self-selecting. But it would be fascinating to know who took part in both? Same old, same old? Or were people new to the political process drawn in by either outreach effort?

Since landlines were the way Congressman Moran’s office could identify who lived in his constituency, this was a feasible way to go. Yet many are now choosing to discontinue having a landline and depending exclusively on smart or cell phones.

A question about the Obama team’s outreach reflects broader concern about the digital divide. Nowadays, wealthy and middle-class urban residents take for granted Internet access and rely on the technologies that allow it. The assumption of almost universal Internet connectivity in the Washington D.C. metro area is alarming. But how many are not included? Here the digital divide may reinforce existing socio-economic inequities, with the well-connected, excuse the pun, always being favored. And the more Internet-enabled technology one has at one’s fingertips, the better and wider one’s choices.

Public libraries are critical to bridging the digital divide. They are a mainstay for those with limited or no other Internet access. Observing the rows of computer users at the terminals in libraries here is always such a pleasure (and a painful reminder of how South Africa has neglected and underfunded its public libraries in recent years). Many of the public libraries around here are hives of activity and engines of digital integration.

Notwithstanding the hustle and bustle at nearby libraries, is all this online activity really expanding opportunities for true political participation? Is political participation narrowing or broadening with the ubiquity of Internet access? Or is the noise only the reverberations of the echo chamber of the “well-connected”?

A quintessential Washington night

It was the first time for me. Never before had I attended an inaugural party, never mind an official inaugural ball, around a U.S. presidential inauguration.

Aspects of last night will stay with me forever, but the subway ride back to our car at the end of the evening provided some memorable moments. The juxtaposition of riders reflected the assorted diversity of America in snapshot form. The bejeweled, glamorously clad attendees of inaugural celebrations contrasted with other riders. Some were journalists in jeans pushing carts laden with equipment. Others too had clearly put in an extra-long day’s work and seemed drained, relieved to be finally heading home. Some already seated on the train when we boarded had the dazed, weary look of folk who had been on the job all day. Perhaps they had worked since sunrise, preparing to cater to throngs of inauguration viewers? Or maybe they were cleaners who had just finished a shift dealing with the aftermath of the day’s revelry? They looked with seeming indifference at the black-tie folk in their midst. Or was it with bemusement? Disgust? Or even envy? It was hard to read their minds as they surveyed the groups of loud, fancily dressed partygoers standing in the train.

The eclectic combination of people thrown together in our subway carriage included a statuesque woman with an incredibly tall and dramatic gold hat. She seemed Nigerian—or at least her hat did. Perhaps she had attended the widely promoted charity ball that ambassadors from various countries had put together? This lady with the imposing hat didn’t look at all tired. She looked ready for a regal procession or to be part of a family wedding photo.

Men in formal military dress wear, with all kinds of medals filling their lapels, also stood out. They and their wives or dates were clearly fresh from the “Commander-in-Chief’s Ball”, one of two official inaugural balls. One such gentleman, in a splendid Southern drawl, had immediately offered me his seat when we boarded. Such gallantry is not generally expected at that late hour on Washington public transportation.

Like the passengers on the subway last night, Washington encapsulates diversity. The powerful coexist with the relatively powerless, the haves with the have-nots, the chivalrous with the rude. The scene had me thinking about the inaugural speech President Barack Obama delivered earlier that day. He had observed, “For we the people understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it… We do not believe in this country that freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few.”

D.C.’s Metro system was the great leveler last night. The subway was definitely the most efficient way to get around. The gridlock was as bad as forewarned. Unless you were the president or vice president and travel with police escorts in a motorcade, you were foolish to be wedded to a car. I’m not sure if other chauffeured, limousine-riding VIPs were able to beat the traffic odds. The many road closures around the National Mall where President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were publicly inaugurated earlier in the day were partly to blame. Backups were also due to the sheer volume of vehicles on the road, especially around the Washington Convention Center where the two official inaugural balls were held.

Walking was also extremely popular—despite the frigid weather. A regular sight earlier in the evening was people walking hand-in-hand, bundled in coats, heading toward the Convention Center. Surprisingly often, a man might have been carrying a woman’s pair of impressively high-heeled shoes, with a woman ambling alongside in a pair of flats, holding a clutch bag. Guess the flat shoes were going to be stuffed into coat pockets at the coat check, and the showy, sexy, high pair then given the chance to strut their stuff. Trust ever-practical Americans! Have to get to the event comfortably, but then look good when there!

An inaugural ball myth was exploded for me: Most people DID wear coats, given the fearsome, wind-chilled cold. One is warned about the long coat-check queues at the end of such events, so the recommendation is not to bring a coat to check. The chilliness of the evening showed most to be sensible though. Only a minority seemed to be “underdressed” despite being in black-tie and ball-gown finery.

We attended two events: A sponsored party at one of the Smithsonian Museums, plus one of the two official inaugural balls at the Convention Center. The former was a cocktail party, with delicious food, a wide-ranging bar, quiet music so conversation with fellow attendees was possible, and, most remarkably, the possibility to sit down. The latter was not exactly an intimate affair—we were part of the reputed 40,000 who attended the two official balls. We missed the fleeting appearance and dance of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, but it really didn’t matter. With so many people present, I doubt we would have been able to get close enough to actually witness the moment with the naked eye. Giant video screens provided a sense of what was happening on stage. That was how we were able to enjoy Stevie Wonder giving his all, belting out his familiar songs while weaving characteristically to the rhythms. No food was available at this event, but champagne, wine, and other sundries could be purchased for a princely sum.

People watching and celebrity spotting were most rewarding. The whole kaleidoscope that is America was present. Local Washingtonians danced in delight to honour Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday it was yesterday, plus to celebrate the re-inaugurated Obama. Many of those filling the expansive dance floor were grassroots activists from out of town who had worked to reelect Obama. Seasoned, older political operatives mingled with young activists. Pride and joy were palpable.

That is the overriding impression: Folk really had fun and enjoyed themselves. And the buzz of happy people was infectious. Even when they were outside in the mind-numbing cold, traipsing from one event to another, they were laughing, smiling, and full of joy. People in Washington are typically intense and usually take themselves too seriously. Last night was different. There was an appealing lightness to the mood.

Hopeful hints of change

When Barack Obama is re-inaugurated as president of the United States this long weekend, the weather is expected to be chilly, bright, and clear. This forecast is symbolically appropriate, as President Obama is beginning to articulate his vision for America with greater clarity, vigor, and purpose.

The team President Obama is assembling around him for his second term suggests an agenda stressing domestic priorities. World events will always compel a U.S. president’s attention, but Obama is signaling clearly that his focus will be on domestic issues. As he emphasized during his reelection campaign, “It’s time for nation building at home”. This is true. The world needs a strengthened America. The world needs an America that has reprioritized and balanced its budget, and bolstered its economy to create more jobs. The world needs an America that has rededicated itself to supporting its citizens with better education, improved infrastructure, accessible healthcare, and other tools to get ahead and provide for themselves and their families into the future.

The administration’s battles with Congress have acquired a different hue lately, hinting at a new dynamic. Despite itself, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives voted for that anathema—tax increases—for those Americans with annual incomes over $400,000.00. Wary of authorizing further spending, Republicans reluctantly also agreed to extend $50 billion in aid to those devastated by Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey last November.

A slim minority of House Republicans breaking with their party and supporting the Democrats to provide the winning votes was essential to passage of these two bills. This is the formula Obama and his team will have to use repeatedly in coming months to get measures through the House of Representatives. Obama will have to keep coaxing such splits in the Republican monolith to enable passage of his legislative priorities. This type of bipartisan behaviour is, of course, how effective democracies should operate.

There is yet another new approach from House Republicans: They announced yesterday they will support extending the government’s borrowing authority for three months, rather than force another fabricated crisis now. This action will give more time to craft agreement on budgets for the new fiscal year, including possible tangible deficit reduction. This extension of the debt ceiling is a most positive and practical concession from the Republican side.

President Obama is also a more seasoned politician and strategist this time round. This past week, he showed how much he has learned from past battles with Congress when he presented very particular proposals for executive and legislative action to curb gun violence. The horrific murders of twenty first-grade students and six adult staff members at their Newtown, Connecticut elementary school in mid-December have galvanized opposition to America’s loose gun laws. Newtown has created the opportunity for changes to America’s permissive gun culture like no other recent mass tragedy involving a gun—and there have, unfortunately, been too many. Shifts in public opinion show majorities of Americans now support, in differing degrees, various specific measures to curb guns.

Since the day of the massacre, which he has described as the “most difficult day” of his presidency, President Obama has appealed for action in common sense, reasonable, and nonpartisan terms. He says Americans will have failed in their duty as parents to keep children safe if they do not act to curtail gun violence.

In making his very specific recommendations for action this week—derived from Vice President Joe Biden’s task force—Obama promised he will “put everything [he’s] got” into getting the announced measures adopted. Having been criticized for “leading from behind” on other issues, his fast, impassioned, and firm response to the gun control challenge is the essence of presidential leadership.

Obama has thrown down the gauntlet to members of Congress and the National Rifle Association. He challenged the American public to put pressure on members of Congress to state their position on the measures “on record” and “…[I]f they say no, ask them why not. Ask them what’s more important: Doing whatever it takes to get an ‘A’ grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns, or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off to first grade?” He added, “There will be pundits and politicians and special-interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical, all-out assault on liberty—not because that’s true, but because they want to gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves. And behind the scenes, they’ll do everything they can to block any common-sense reform and make sure nothing changes whatsoever.” He has urged members of Congress to “examine their own conscience.”

The NRA’s capture of the legislative process concerning guns at federal, state, and local levels of government has been alarmingly successful until now. Its disturbingly effective modus operandi is to bully legislators to do its bidding. In elections, it spends millions to bolster proponents and, far more importantly, oppose those who reject its viewpoint. The NRA ferociously pursues those who vote against its narrowly defined interests. Republican members of Congress who oppose it have been vulnerable to primary challenges by NRA-sponsored candidates, while Democrats have been vulnerable to general election challenges. Gerrymandered voting districts across America that limit diversity in opinion have further strengthened the hand of the NRA and other special interest groups.

Until now, the NRA has been ruthlessly effective in furthering its agenda. Might the debate about gun control be different after Newtown, especially with such strong presidential sponsorship? How the gun violence prevention debate plays out in Congress could have an enormous impact on President Obama’s second term.

After the storm

Until Hurricane Sandy’s arrival, neighbourhoods around here looked festive and jolly, cluttered as they were with colourful adornments. Rotund orange pumpkins and pots of chrysanthemums in the warm hues of autumn flanked front doors. Shrubs, bushes, and trees were decked in coats of gold, orange, and red foliage. There were also Halloween decorations, creative or corny, but always spooky—proving again that no one decorates outdoors like Americans. Repetitively mind-numbing political signage for the presidential and congressional elections was everywhere.

Much of it is gone now. Hurricane Sandy took care of that, and left a world somberly transformed. Nonstop rain and gusting winds stripped off many leaves, creating soggy brown-yellow mounds of unedifying mush. Many folk brought in their chrysants, Halloween decorations, and political signs to prevent Sandy blowing them about and damaging people or property. Those who didn’t take preventative measures had to pick up remnants of dreams for a “Happy Halloween” and a routine election.

People in the D.C. area are lucky. Public transport here closed down for a couple of days, but has mostly resumed. The worst many of us suffered was flooded basements, no electricity for a couple of days, cold homes, defrosting freezers, and yards littered with storm debris. There are unfortunate folk who had trees crashing down on their homes, causing major structural damage. But, relative to those further north and east in New Jersey and New York, we fared very well. It is heartbreaking to see and hear people there grieving for the dozens of loved ones lost, and thousands of homes and livelihoods destroyed. The cleanup from Sandy will be expensive, time-consuming, and require great patience and perseverance.

Everyone is, of course, fixated on Sandy’s impact on the elections. And it could be really significant. Which candidate will “benefit” from the storm and its aftermath? And what will be the effect on voters in the key battleground states of North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, never mind Pennsylvania, a blue-leaning state that, before Sandy, suddenly became in contention again for Republicans?

President Barack Obama went back to governing full time for a few days, taking a break from campaigning. The crisis has allowed him to highlight that he is the commander-in-chief, the one who leads the relief effort for those now in dire need. Given the haggling in the campaign over the role and extent of government, he was able to remind Americans how all look to government, as well as NGOs such as the Red Cross, for assistance and support in a disaster like this—even those who lambasted government during the campaign. By being effective, authoritative, and caring, Obama would also been able to create a contrast with the Republicans under President George W. Bush who mishandled the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Sandy halted early voting in the mid-Atlantic states. Even though early voting has now resumed in states in Sandy’s path—such as in Maryland—reduced hours or days for voting could be significant for this year’s election, especially in crucial swing states. In the 2008 election, for example, around 30 percent of all votes were cast before Election Day. This trend was likely to be heightened this year, as more states now permit early voting, and voters are more familiar with the concept. Prior to Sandy, a National Public Radio commentator estimated that about one fifth of likely voters had already cast their ballots. The campaigns of both Obama and Governor Mitt Romney were encouraging the electorate to vote early, with both campaigns wanting to “bank” as many votes as possible before November 6. With much fanfare, Obama himself voted early in his home city of Chicago, apparently the first sitting president to do so.

In addition to perhaps impacting early voting numbers, Sandy is also likely to affect turnout. This will be so when early voting resumes, and for Election Day itself. Will voters whose homes or businesses were hammered by Sandy care to vote? High turnout typically benefits Democratic Party candidates. So reduced turnout would likely hurt the Democratic ticket more. The profound consequence of diminished turnout among Democratic voters could be that Obama could lose the national popular vote in the election, even as many polls perceive him to be narrowly ahead in the state-based electoral college that determines the outcome of the election.

The halt in campaigning due to Sandy is, frankly, a relief. The negativity, pettiness, and vitriolic nature of both campaigns were becoming extremely off-putting. When the campaigns resume, I fervently hope they will do so with a new tenor. This is probably wishful thinking.

If the demeaning nature and tone of pre-Sandy campaigning was the low point, for me, of this high-stakes election, the categorical high point was the remarks both Obama and Romney delivered at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner on October 18. If you have not already done so, please watch the full comments of both presidential candidates that evening in New York City. They are riveting.

Their remarks that evening represent the best of U.S. democracy in my eyes. The dinner took place between the second and third presidential debates, at a time of heightened competition between the two men due to Obama’s weak first debate. The remarks both gentlemen delivered that night were, of course, scripted— unlikely by themselves—but the content and way in which both presented them is outstanding.

Humour is an essential part of U.S. society: No one can take them self too seriously; everyone has to be able to make jokes at their own expense. While the veneer of the comments at the Al Smith dinner was funny, the reality was that this was campaigning in a different guise, with very pointed digs being made at each other—and, most importantly, at themselves. Whatever happens on November 6, this encounter will be my best memory from the campaign of 2012.