Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Fund it, build it, get on with it

Connecting Dulles International Airport, Washington D.C.’s primary international air hub, to the city’s subway system is a goal that has, until recently, received near unanimous support. A project that was perceived as essential for the region’s economy, transportation, and functionality is now mired in partisan dithering, posturing, and shenanigans. Which all seems rather absurd when there is basic agreement on the need for the project.

The lack of a convenient mass transit link from the main international airport to downtown in a city of Washington’s undeniable national and international relevance and stature is, in truth, incredible. When Dulles Airport was constructed in the 1970s, easy passenger access to the Metro was always intentioned. Only in recent years though has the plan really gathered steam.

But now the funding for this patently necessary project has become captive to acrimonious state and local politics. The lack of bipartisanship at the federal level is mirrored at the state level, and the state of Virginia is no exception.

Virginia looms large in presidential politics. A conservative leaning state, it is one of the key “swing” states that could determine this year’s presidential race. In 2008, it voted for President Barack Obama; in 2012, the Obama campaign hopes the state will again vote his way. The southern part of the state is more rural and conservative. The northern part, encompassing Washington D.C. suburbs, is more urban, liberal, and heavily congested, with other liberal pockets around university towns such as Charlottesville and Williamsburg.

At present, Virginians have voted into place office holders who are predominantly Republican, although its two senators in Congress are both Democrats. One of these Senate seats is up for grabs this November, with two former governors likely competing for it in one of the tightest, most expensive races this election. Present Republican Governor Robert F. McDonnell was widely considered a potential vice presidential running mate for probable Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. That was before he became embroiled in an off-putting conservative pander this past legislative session that tried to legislate a compulsory vaginal ultrasound procedure for those in Virginia considering an abortion. The legislation failed, even with both houses of the state legislature being Republican controlled.

Phase 2 of Dulles Rail, or extending Metro’s Silver Line from Reston, Virginia, to Dulles Airport is, in theory, to be funded with federal, state, and Fairfax and Loudoun County assistance, plus revenue from the Dulles Toll Road. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) is overseeing construction of the Silver Line, including the proposed extension to Dulles. Phase 1 is expected to be finished late in 2013, while construction of Phase 2 to Dulles should ideally commence early in 2013.

The most recent brouhaha stems from a labour requirement in the general contract for Phase 2. The MWAA supports this pro-union clause, whereas the state government and the all-Republican supervisory board in Loudoun County, the county in which Dulles is located and through which the Silver Line extension would primarily pass, do not. Virginia is a “right-to-work” state, so the state feels any pro-union labour preferences would violate state laws. The state even called a special legislative session specifically to outlaw any consideration of labour agreements in the awarding of contracts. The two-year Virginia state budget was revealed recently—without the inclusion of any funding for the Silver Line.

For the second time, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the remaining Republican in Obama’s cabinet, has helped mediate between the various parties. Thanks to the Secretary’s involvement, it appears that the WMAA will possibly weaken the pro-union labour provision. This would presumably permit the state to release its promised contribution of $150 million for the project and Loudoun County to commit to supporting the project. Let’s hope this compromise really comes to pass so that bidding for Phase 2 can proceed.

Another issue that could delay the proceedings is a federal audit of the WMAA. The airports authority has been criticized for opaque decision-making, top-heavy management, and its estimates of escalated tolls on the Dulles Toll Road. A preliminary report on the audit should be available shortly. This audit will hopefully result in greater transparency, changes in WMAA’s funding formula, and better atmospherics.

Funding the Silver Line certainly shouldn’t come on the backs of those using the Dulles Toll Road. Steep tolling on a major highway—thereby forcing users onto secondary roads and worsening the traffic patterns that the tolled road was supposed to address—will sound painfully familiar to road users in Johannesburg, South Africa, who are grappling with similar, although different, issues.

Part of the pushback is from Virginians in the southern part of the state feeling they shouldn’t be subsidizing a huge transportation project in the north from which they derive no benefit. Northerners would retort that they provide most of Virginia’s tax base in the first place.

The real issue behind the new resistance to the project stems from Republicans not wanting to fall in with the broader Democratic narrative. They do not want to boost employment, foster economic growth, or create aggregate demand through building infrastructure. They do not want to help fund an investment that would have a multiplier effect on employment and growth in the region. They do not want to increase spending and provide stimulus. They do not want to support unionised labour.  They want to cut back on public spending and shrink budgets. Such is the politics of economic recovery in the state of Virginia—and the United States.

Update on June 7, 2012: The Washington Post reports that the MWAA voted to drop the pro-union provision in the Silver Line contract, thereby paving the way for Virginian Governor McDonnell to come through with the promised $150 million. Now will Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors support the project too? Stay tuned.

Update on July 3, 2012: In a 5-4 vote this morning, Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors agreed to Phase 2 of the Silver Line. Funding issues were resolved by an agreement to create special tax districts around prospective Metro stops in the county and to increase tolls on the Dulles Access Road. There is still a dream for some federal funding. But, without further delay, bids on Phase 2 can now be placed. Progress indeed.

Whither America?

The relative decline of the United States and imminent rise of China are exaggerated—if transparency and participation are the criteria for good governance. Two recent big news stories reflect core characteristics of governance in the two societies, highlighting their respective political strengths and weaknesses.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s possible rejection of the Affordable Care Act, the core legislative accomplishment of the Obama Administration, affirms the strengths of the contentious U.S. democratic model. Juxtaposed to this debate is the dark drama surrounding Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai, formerly a contender for promotion to China’s über-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. Bo was stripped of all Communist Party posts and his wife arrested in a murder investigation. This unfolding story underlines the limitations of the opaque Chinese Leninist model.

These processes are occurring at politically delicate times in both countries, with potentially profound implications for each.

The United States is, of course, caught up in the orderly tumult of presidential and congressional elections, to be held this November 6. China is gearing up for its usually carefully orchestrated transfer of power between Communist Party elites at the 18th Party Congress this October, and the allocation of government roles at the National People’s Congress next March.

The rough-and-tumble of Chinese elite politics usually takes place behind closed doors. Chinese society and the world learn the outcome of the cut-throat politicking of leadership shifts only when Chinese leaders emerge from behind the curtain at Party Congresses. Glimpses of factional politics have been seen this time due to Bo’s wife Gu Kailai being implicated in the deadly poisoning of British businessman Neil Heywood. If the victim of this conspiracy were a hapless Chinese businessman not a foreigner, the world would be none the wiser. However, the appearance at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu of Bo’s right-hand-man-turned-opponent, Chongqing Police Chief Wang Lijun, with documents suggesting fishy circumstances to Heywood’s death injected unwanted global interest in the case, leading to the dismissal and arrest.

The sad fact is the outside world is probably more aware of the evolving situation in China than its citizens. The Chinese government is trying hard to control debate within China about Bo’s campaigns in Chongqing, his recent purging, and its meaning for the political transition. Yet its ability to do so in the era of the Internet, social media, micro-blogging, and instant messaging is greatly complicated. China’s cyber security police are extremely busy behind its “Great Firewall”.

Meanwhile, the specter of the U.S. Supreme Court possibly throwing out President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law has garnered enormous attention within the United States and internationally. President Obama himself incurred great disapproval for initial criticism of the Court. He said it would be “…an unprecedented, extraordinary step” to reject a law that was “passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.” The key critique of Obama was that a president should not comment on a case pending before the Court. The Court is duty-bound to void unconstitutional laws, and it has done so before.

Obama later stepped back from this, acknowledging, “…the Supreme Court [has] the final say on our Constitution and our laws… It’s precisely because of that extraordinary power that the Court has traditionally exercised significant restraint and deference to our duly elected legislature, our Congress.”

Spending a few hours outside the Supreme Court late last month when it was hearing arguments on the law was fascinating for this South African. I enjoyed listening to the cacophony of chants and calls by the equally well-represented proponents and opponents of the law. The good-natured back-and-forth between the two sides was delightful and inspiring.

The discourse included competing chants—delivered simultaneously—like: “Ho, Ho/Hey, Hey/Obamacare/Is Here to Stay” and “Hey, Hey/Ho, Ho/Obamacare/Has Got to Go”. Or it was: “We.Love.Obamacare/We.Need.Obamacare” and “The Constitution Matters/Protect the Constitution”. Songs included (sung to “This Little Light of Mine”) “This Healthcare of Mine/I’m Gonna Let It Shine…” and (sung to “Everywhere We Go, People Wanna Know”) “Everywhere We Go/There’s a New Tax There…” It was a highly memorable, albeit noisy, way to enjoy a spring morning.

Those in other industrial democracies both marvel and recoil at the prospect of politically appointed government officials rejecting a law passed by a majority of democratically elected representatives. They are also incredulous at the very debate on whether individual healthcare insurance should be “mandated” for all American citizens, and how such a mandate could be perceived as impinging on individual freedom.

The Supreme Court’s decision is expected in late June. In a recent opinion poll, Americans anticipate the justices’ political views will determine their ruling on the healthcare law—rather than a neutral interpretation of the law. Republican presidents nominated the five more conservative-leaning justices on the bench, while Democratic presidents nominated the four more liberal justices. Whether or not the Court casts out the healthcare law, either entirely or partly, the crucial point is that the U.S. public will also get to render their verdict on the law. When the U.S. public votes on November 6, they will be able to endorse Obama’s policy prescriptions for the nation—including on healthcare—or they can repudiate them.

The long-suffering Chinese people won’t be given a chance to express their views on subjects as wide ranging as the merits or demerits of Bo’s “Chongqing model” of development or who should ascend to the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo. These subjects will not even be debated in the Chinese press.

Comparing a U.S. constitutional issue and Chinese elite factional politics—tangled with a criminal case—seems incongruous and contrived. But the two cases project core truths about the two countries and their systems of governance. The United States, with its often perplexing division of government authority and its relentless expectation of transparency, allows vigorous participation of its people. China is characterised by dead-end, impenetrable opacity in choosing who governs and how they govern; minimal accountability; and unwillingness to hear and indeed heavy-handed suppression of the views of those who are governed.

The all-too-often gridlocked system of divided government in the United States is exasperating. But don’t discount the United States. Give me “too much” transparency and “too much” democracy any day over none.

A sporting chance

Competitive inter-school sport occurs only at the high-school level in a typical American school district. This realisation took me by complete surprise when moving here twenty months ago with a teenager and a near teen. I had assumed that, like in South Africa, inter-school sports started at the elementary level and continued through high school. It turns out that local clubs nurture youth athletic talent and provide formative competitive sports opportunities in the United States, not primary and middle schools.

Americans are as fanatical about sport as any others. Presently, the American sporting world is preoccupied with “March Madness”, the annual elimination competitions of both men’s and women’s college basketball that take place in March. For both genders, “March Madness” begins with 64 teams, continues with 32, then the “Sweet Sixteen”, the “Elite Eight”, the “Final Four”, and then the championship game.

President Barack Obama’s choice of teams most likely to succeed in each “bracket” of the competition was canvassed and has been widely reported. Obama also whisked off British Prime Minister David Cameron to Ohio last week to attend a game during the latter’s official visit to the United States—and apparently taught Cameron about the game throughout.

The scale of the tournament is huge, in terms of commercial value and TV viewership. Fans’ university and regional loyalties come to the fore, with many office pools being created and wagers won and lost.

For the athletes, a successful collegiate sporting career also means an entrée to professional sports. American basketball legends such as Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan became household names through their exploits as college players before playing professionally.

A revealing aspect for me is how the women’s collegiate competition is as highly valued as the men’s. This is thanks to “Title IX”, the civil rights law President Richard Nixon signed in 1972 that forbids discriminating between genders in education if that educational institution receives direct or indirect federal aid. Although sport was not explicitly mentioned in the legislation, Title IX’s biggest impact has unquestionably been on high school and collegiate athletics for women.

Before generalising about how local clubs foster interest in sport and develop talent, I should note that physical education is offered during the school day at American elementary and middle schools, but in a very low-key way when compared to school sport in South Africa.

For sport-oriented young Americans, neighbourhood clubs try to offer different levels of competition. A “select” or “travel” league would be geared to the really talented, and these elite teams literally travel around a region to compete against each other. A “house” league would offer general participation, although “A” and “B” leagues may be differentiated. “Try outs” may also be required to generate teams of relatively balanced ability. House teams typically compete against each other in the local area. A “development” league might be offered for the beginner youngest age groups.

These clubs are all about partnerships. Local school facilities are typically used for weekday practices after school hours and weekend games. So, for example, the local basketball club, the county school district, and the PTA of my daughter’s school teamed up to cover the cost of replacing the floor of the school’s gym.

But the key way in which these clubs reflect the best of a community working together is in the fact that they are volunteer dependent. Parent volunteers typically provide most of the coaching, although high school and college students coach too. A remarkable commitment is asked of these volunteer coaches: weekly practices and weekend games for a full season. Having observed parent coaches for the sports in which my two children have participated over the last twenty months, it is very clear that most coaches greatly enjoy the experience, do a simply terrific job, and really give their heart-and-soul to guiding the children in their care. One can also observe some taking it far too seriously, with some behaving as if they were coaching a high-powered college or professional team…

In an aside, in addition to being an avid follower of the game and a keen “hoops” player himself, President Obama is also known to attend his daughters’ basketball league games and sometimes step up to coach temporarily. How he must love such moments—the joy of feeling like a “regular” suburban dad!

Participation in these clubs requires a nominal fee, to cover the cost of officiating and the team shirt. Scholarships are always offered for those who would like to participate but do not have the means to do so.

When games are played, umpires or referees are usually provided, and they are paid a token sum. The refs are usually adults, but many times they are not. Providing teenagers with the opportunity to learn how to officiate is another great role these clubs play. For some American teenagers, officiating club games might be a first job.

Certainly, there are also many opportunities for young Americans to have private and more individualised coaching in the different sports. The cost of such training keeps it the preserve of the few—those who can afford it and those who are uniquely gifted. The majority of Americans learn their sport through local clubs.

Pious politics


Rick Santorum, one of the conservative Republicans vying to be the GOP presidential nominee, has hurt his chances of being selected by espousing views on religion that alienate many Americans. In contrast, a recent civic exercise for 12-year-olds illustrated a positive approach to teaching social and moral values.

Volunteering at an “Ethics Day” for 12-year-old school children turned out to be a rewarding way to spend a morning. A local, secular, civil-society coalition organized the half-day event; a nearby Jewish temple provided the facilities; and all sixth graders from two area elementary schools took a break from their regular school day to participate. The point of the exercise was to stress how ethical choices determine the kind of schools, communities, and world in which we live. Ethical dilemmas were presented for discussion, and the challenge of reconciling what one could do in certain situations, what one would do, and what one should do was highlighted.

Every religion, faith, and creed could endorse the universalisms that underpinned the deliberations. It was agreed that integrity comes from living basic values like honesty, trust, fairness, justice, compassion, responsibility, and respect. The tenor of the presentations and discussions was practical and respectful, yet also idealistic and inspirational. The approach was non-theological, nondenominational, and non-divisive. It showed how moral conduct and civic duty can be inspired in a pluralistic, diverse society in a way that is sensitive and doesn’t cause offense—and supplements moral and religious guidance provided through family and private faith.

Rick Santorum and his evangelical supporters would likely find the formula followed at “Ethics Day” to be wanting. He recently said he didn’t “believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute”, and he accused President Barack Obama of “advancing a phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible”.

In what has effectively become a two-man race between former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and himself, Santorum’s elevation of divisive social wedge issues is also clever politics. Part of Santorum’s recent rhetoric is unquestionably belief—he is a deeply religious man. Part of it is also deliberate strategy. Some of the continued lack of enthusiasm for Romney among the core of the Republican Party relates to mistrust of his Mormonism and his reluctance to speak about his faith and how it informs who he is. By speaking so forcefully about his own faith and views, the Catholic Santorum is intentionally making this contrast with Romney. While Republican voters are also unsure whether Romney is a real conservative, Santorum assures all he is a “full-spectrum” conservative.

The politics surrounding the presidential campaign also explains why Romney, Santorum, and Newt Gingrich, the other conservative Republic presidential hopeful, berated President Obama for apologizing to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the disrespectful burning of the Koran at the U.S. airbase outside Kabul. Obama’s apology had struck me as totally appropriate and, in fact, essential after the inflammatory treatment, albeit not intentioned, of Islam’s holy book.

This overreach and heated rhetoric on social and religious matters has, I think, backfired for Santorum. He already has the evangelical vote sown up—although there is still some dwindling support for Gingrich—so continuing to hammer away on these themes is counter productive for his presidential ambitions. The brighter prospects of the U.S. economy also partly explains this pivot from focusing on the economy, but highlighting religion in the public sphere and social issues is not a winning strategy for Republicans for the general election. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, lost his 2006 senatorial reelection campaign by 18 percentage points largely due to his views on faith and gay rights.

The longer the divisive Republican nomination battle continues, the less likely Republicans will unify for the November election against President Obama, and the greater the possibility of a third candidate emerging to contest the election—which would split the conservative vote.

A protest poster at a recent Santorum rally said it all to me: “America is a democracy, not a theocracy”. Long live separation of church and state.

Unoccupying D.C.

Protesters occupying two downtown Washington, D.C., locations are being told to pack up and leave, and are being forcibly removed—even arrested—if they don’t leave voluntarily. After months of tolerance and inaction, U.S. Park Police have started enforcing the law on no overnight camping in parks.

Respecting people’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression from government interference and the concomitant right to peaceful assembly have underpinned acceptance of the occupiers in the two parks at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza. However, District sanitation officials have been concerned for weeks about deteriorating sanitary conditions, especially at the McPherson camp, with rat sightings becoming commonplace, even during daylight. A congressional committee also started investigating the violation of no nightly camping on federal land. Park police had also been asking occupiers to remove an enormous tarpaulin—the “Tent of Dreams”—that they had erected around the statue of General McPherson, a Civil War hero, in the center of the Square.

Police cleared most of the tent community at McPherson Square yesterday at dawn. As of this afternoon, the remaining stragglers on the one side of the square defiantly maintained they would never leave. At Freedom Plaza, from the volume of police on the plaza and in the immediate area this afternoon, it is appears similar clearing procedures are imminent. The number of tents at Freedom Plaza has certainly decreased in the last days, with campers evidently heeding warnings to pack up and leave. Churches in the District have apparently been offering temporary shelter.

A couple of visits to the two sites in recent days left me with some impressions. The physical squalor of the McPherson camp was impossible to ignore. Nonstop human traffic since the occupation started in early October, coupled with rain, sleet and a little snow, have ensured that the formerly grassy square has become a mushy, gooey mud bath (no wonder occupiers resorted to sleeping on pallets). Paving at the Freedom Plaza site facilitated a less unsanitary environment.

But more than the deterioration of the physical environment, what struck me was how the nature of those now occupying the camps, especially McPherson, changed. The median age of the occupiers definitely increased. Gone are the younger, idealistic, perhaps naïve occupiers of autumn. Those remaining are older, more seasoned activists; some are anarchists and others nihilists. The gentle bearded young man from California with whom I chatted last November as he munched his breakfast in his “tent” of draped clear plastic with its sign proclaiming “Occupy DC is transparent and participatory” seems long gone.

Despite admonitions such as “Cops: Don’t Be Tools of the 1%” seen earlier at McPherson, one could argue that police are doing “Occupy D.C.” a favour by clearing out the camps. This phase of the Occupy movement here in D.C. had run its course. But the occupiers couldn’t back down without losing face. Park police have now given them the way out. It was time anyway for the occupiers to retreat, regroup, consolidate, reassess, and plan new strategies for spring. And now they can do so.

The Occupy movement has unquestionably influenced the national debate. The discussion it provoked on income and social inequality, corporate greed, indebtedness, and unemployment is ongoing. Indeed, its focus on social inequity in the United States and how economic policies benefit the already haves is central in current discourse. President Barack Obama is urging tax reform so that the wealthiest pay more than they have been. He highlights the issue that Warren Buffett brought to the fore—that Buffett’s secretary pays taxes at a higher rate than Buffett himself does. The tax returns of likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, one of the wealthiest men ever to be running for president, with a net worth estimated to be around $250 million, further underscore this point. Romney is shown to have paid a tax rate of 13,9% in 2010 on capital gains from $20 million in income. Revelations such as this and Romney’s general awkwardness in discussing money, wealth, and poverty should surely galvanize the Occupy movement as its followers deliberate the way forward.

As the Occupy movement in D.C. ends its current phase, perhaps the miracle is that the D.C. camps lasted as long as they did. An unusually mild winter certainly helped. While those in the ski industry have cursed the relative lack of snow, those in Occupy D.C. were grateful.

Update on February 13, 2012: As of this afternoon, McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza still house a few token Occupy D.C. tents.  No sleeping or camping is permitted in these tents. Compliance with Park Police also requires tent flaps always to be open so police can confirm no bedding or personal effects are being kept there. Occupiers are apparently maintaining a constant presence in the parks. I was told that people are sleeping in shifts elsewhere—such as in churches and shelters—and then taking turns keeping vigil 24/7 in the parks. The library tent at McPherson Square still stands, packed tight with books and magazines, but the “OccuTeaHouse” is gone.

Update on February 20, 2012: The Washington Post complements the Park Police for the way they handled the Occupy D.C. protests.

Energizing the base—and suppressing the opposition—in 2012

The state of the U.S. economy is the critical indicator for this year’s presidential election, but who better turns out their base will be as pivotal. Both President Barack Obama and probable Republican nominee Governor Mitt Romney have significant challenges in this respect.

While President Obama continues to receive high personal approval ratings, his overall job performance, most pointedly his stewardship of the economy, is viewed dimly—although perceptions have improved recently as he has become more populist in tone and aggressive in his criticism of Republicans. The classic question Americans ask in an election is whether they are better off now than they were four years previously. A majority of Americans perceive their situation as having deteriorated since Obama became president. As a result, enthusiasm and support for Obama have unquestionably waned; many are disillusioned.

The long-stated Republican goal of ensuring Obama to be a one-term president—see Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on the subject—means too that the Republican presidential nominee—the “anti Obama”—needs to be someone around whom the party can really rally. The tight 8-vote victory of presumptive nominee Romney over Rick Santorum, with Ron Paul running a close third, in this week’s Iowa caucuses highlights that Republicans are not united by or enthralled with Romney’s candidacy. The Republican faithful do not support Romney with their usual commitment to their leading presidential contender. He is perceived as too moderate and inconsistent on conservative issues—he has derisively been called “John Kerry without the medals”—in a political party that has lurched rightward due to Tea Party influence, and his Mormon faith is problematic for the many evangelicals in the party.

So both the Democratic incumbent and the likely Republican contender have enthusiasm deficits. Turnout issues extend to the demography and make-up of their supporters.

President Obama has lost luster with many of his young, previously keen supporters. Youth in 2008, many voting for the first time, were greatly motivated by Obama’s campaign of change, his message of hope, and his inspiring personal story, and they canvassed, organized, and turned out for him in a big way. Now they are most disappointed. Change hasn’t come to the extent promised, and the tough jobless economic recovery and brutal political environment in Washington have crushed the hopefulness Obama represented.

The Occupy movement, which involves some former but now disillusioned Obama supporters, presents a challenge for Obama. Obama is part of the “1 percent” by dint of his financial success as the author of Dreams from My Father, his sensitive exploration of his roots, and The Audacity of Hope, his 2006 policy prescriptions for America; his life embodies the proverbial “American Dream”. Obama frequently espouses the themes the Occupy movement introduced into American political discourse, but it would be politically suicidal for him to get any closer to Occupy. Similarly, Occupiers might not feel motivated to organize or work for Obama this time, but it would be a massive blunder if they remained indifferent and didn’t turn up to vote for him on November 6. Particularly since Obama’s likely opponent is a very wealthy former CEO of Bain Capital, a private equity company, who epitomizes crony capitalism on Wall Street and the “1 percent”. Indeed, Romney was born into the “1 percent”. His father too was a CEO, of a car company.

A factor from the Iowa caucuses to watch was the strong turnout of young people for isolationist Ron Paul. Did they vote for Paul because of his obvious anger and disgust at the way things have been run? Could the main candidates re-engage these alienated youth for the general election?

Apart from youth and students, other constituencies vital to electing Obama in 2008 were women, poor people, African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities. Republican lawmakers in over a dozen states, many of them so-called “swing” or battleground states, have passed laws in recent months that aim to restrict access to the polls. These laws intentionally target Democratic-leaning sections of society by imposing strict voter-ID registration requirements, limiting registration drives, and reducing early voting. In December 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would investigate such laws, to ensure they were not discriminatory or disenfranchising. Other ways have been used to limit voter turnout. For example, an aide to former Maryland Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich was recently convicted for initiating robocalls to African American voters in the 2008 gubernatorial election, telling them erroneously late that Election Day that they didn’t need to go and vote as the result had already been established.

Resorting to these types of initiatives to restrict voter turnout highlights a perception challenge for Republicans. The Republican Party is increasingly seen as a party of white, born-again, blue collar Americans. A wry observation from National Public Radio’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me” underscores this perception problem. Commenting on the Mayan prediction that the world will end in 2012, Alonzo Bodden noted that “Surprisingly, Herman Cain becomes the Republican nominee [he earlier suspended his campaign]. And when forced to choose between two black people, the conservatives decide to nuke the planet instead.”

The strong desire to deny Obama re-election may have Republicans flocking to the polls, even if they are lukewarm about their eventual nominee. Dismay with the gridlock and partisanship in Washington—the public has given Congress its lowest-ever job performance rating of single digits—could result in yet greater voter apathy, or could concomitantly inspire voters to emphatically kick out all incumbents.

So, folks, if you thought the tone of the 2011 local elections was combative (see the photo of a Virginia campaign placard), watch out for 2012. It’s likely to be worse.

Taking a leaf out of the Republican presidential field

How Washingtonians deal with the fallen tree leaves adorning their lawns, backyards, and pavements is a revealing prism through which to contemplate illegal immigration in the United States, and Republican Party presidential candidates’ differing views on it.

Many in the area rake up their leaves themselves—or have their children or a neighbourhood teenager do it—and then bundle them into bulky bags that wait expectantly on sidewalks for collection on the next “trash day”. Many hire private gardening services to tend to the mass of foliage that nature dumps most predictably this season. The gardening service workers might gather the leaves with buzzing, mosquito-like leaf blowers, bag the leaves, and then remove the bags immediately. Alternatively, leaves can be left in piles curbside, to become shriveled, dried or soaking (weather permitting) brown fodder, that county workers come and slurp up with giant “vacuum cleaners” on scheduled collection days.

Latinos from Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, or Nicaragua—you name the Central or Latin American country—invariably comprise the work forces of these gardening services here in the D.C. metro area. And one has to wonder how many of these folk are legally in the United States. I would hazard the guess that most are illegals.

Given the inability to agree at the federal level on how to address the perennial problem of illegal immigration, states have begun taking action themselves. Adopted measures include, for example, requiring police to ask people about their immigration status when in contact with them for other reasons. Such measures are highly controversial and are presently under judicial review.

In states that have passed such measures, including Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia, labour that helped tend fields, plant crops, and harvest fruit has noticeably “disappeared”.

Despite high unemployment rates among local American residents, reports from these states note the apparent reluctance of locals to perform the work that undocumented workers so typically provide.

This quandary is familiar to me. It reminds me of South Africans simultaneously panning Malawians, Mozambicans, and Zimbabweans for coming illegally to South Africa and taking jobs from local people—while not being willing to perform these jobs themselves, despite astronomically high unemployment.

The two current GOP frontrunners, former Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, present contrasting views over whether to allow the reputed eleven million illegal immigrants who have settled in the United States a path to legal residency.

In the most recent Republican presidential debate, Gingrich opined: “If you’ve come [to the United States] recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home. Period. If you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.”

Romney retorted that such a policy would be a “magnet”: “To say that we’re going to say to the people who have come here illegally that now you’re all going to get to stay or some large number are going to get to stay and become permanent residents of the United States, that will only encourage more people to do the same thing.”

Gingrich responded: “I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter-century… And I’m prepared to take the heat for saying let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.”

Romney then noted that he was “not going to start drawing lines about who gets to stay and who gets to go. The principle is that we are not going to have an amnesty system that says that people who come here illegally get to stay for the rest of their life in this country legally.”

The Republican Party already has a perception problem with Latino voters, the fastest growing part of the U.S. population. A debate exchange such as this between the present two top contenders in the GOP presidential race cannot help Republican prospects. Yet the question is whose views better reflect those of the Republicans who will vote in the Republican primaries. Will Gingrich’s “liberal” (by Republican standards) but more realistic views on illegal immigration hurt him in the primaries or not?  President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats had supported passage of the Dream Act earlier this year that would have allowed certain categories of illegals to be on a path to eventual citizenship, but Congressional Republicans voted it down.

Whether or not they can vote, you can be assured that Washington’s leaf blowers are following the contortions of the national debate on illegal immigration with great interest.