SOCIAL VOX

My thoughts on the world around me

Major Changes Depend on Little Details

President Barack Obama knows that if he wants to improve relations between the United States and the Muslim world, he will have to focus on the details. On Day 2 of his presidency, Obama made a statement by visiting the State Department.

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February 1, 2009 Posted by | Barack Obama, Foreign Policy, Obama's First 100 Days, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Obama’s Cuba Policy Ought to Be

In the ebb and flow of politics, change is the ultimate catalyst for achieving better government. As in the market, where demand for an old and unattractive product wanes, an unsuccessful political leader or policy, too, can lose favor. It is only a question of time before people realize that while one path may lead to stagnation, there is another that leads to possibility. When that time comes, the superior concept rises to the top.

In the 50 years since Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, the United States has primarily advanced protectionist policies. On February 7, 1962, following the expropriation of numerous U.S.-owned properties in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order imposing a trade embargo on Castro’s government. In 1963, following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the first of many travel restrictions went into effect. Most recently, the Helms-Burton Act was enacted in 1996 to penalize foreign companies that do business in Cuba by preventing them from doing business in the U.S.

What effects have these measures had?

The Cuban people live in poverty. They have little or no access to our medicines, products and other essential items. They are silenced by a repressive government that long ago erased their freedom of expression. And yet, while Cubans feel disdain for their leaders, they are equally scornful of the U.S. The trade embargo has crippled their economic opportunities, and the travel ban has kept families apart for decades.

After 50 years and 10 U.S. presidents, isn’t it time for the U.S. to rethink its position? It may help to look at a successful model.

In technology, the Internet is a powerful tool because it is open to everyone. Its emphasis on collaboration and integration allows people from all over the world to freely exchange ideas and solve complex issues.  The Internet’s openness is a strategy that breaks down barriers, physical or not, and empowers the individual who wields its awesome power.

When applied to Cuba, the key to reforming the communist nation is to bombard it with access and information. The U.S. must allow U.S. citizens to travel into Cuba and ignite the flow of commerce. It ought to lift the trade embargo, so that Americans may benefit from the sugar and tobacco industries, and Cubans may have access to medicine, Hollywood, and apple pie. The U.S. also needs to assign a special envoy to Cuba who will oversee this transformation and assure the Cuban people that the U.S. views its neighbor’s success as a priority.

But as with the Internet, these political measures require collaboration. Once the U.S. changes its policies, it will be up to the Cuban people to act. We will provide the tools, but they will have to take the courageous steps toward democracy and capitalism. Will Cubans prefer a repressive government, or one that denies them nothing? Will they side with the local government that rations what little food they have, or follow the global economy that rewards innovation and hard work? Only they can decide that.

Communism erected walls throughout the island and in the people’s minds. We should tear them down as we once did in Berlin. If the U.S. infuses the island with hope, then there is the possibility that the inhabitants will once again dream of something larger than themselves.

After 50 years of stagnation, a different path seems very attractive.

January 27, 2009 Posted by | Barack Obama, Cuba, Economics, Foreign Policy, International Trade, Law, Obama's First 100 Days, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Earmark Ban Doesn’t Really Ban Anything

Interest groups, lawmakers and lobbyists will have to be a little more creative to get funding for their pet projects. With President Barack Obama imposing an earmark ban on the $825 billion-dollar stimulus bill, lobbyists and others will have to seek money through “ready to go” jobs eligible for the stimulus plan.

This brand of politics disgusts me. It’s the very reason why people become so disillusioned by their government and the K Street, fork-tongued crowd that compete for its power and wealth. Some will argue that lobbying is a necessary evil in politics, or perhaps not an evil at all. For every lobbyist seeking to help the “mom and pop” shops, though, there are a million Jack Abramoffs who suck the life and idealism right out of public service.

From his years in law school, Obama should know that if the four corners of a document are not absolutely airtight, clever people will have their way with the fine print. Mr. President, if you truly did not want any earmarks whatsoever, you and your staff should have chosen the stimulus bill’s words more carefully.

January 26, 2009 Posted by | Barack Obama, Economics, Law, Obama's First 100 Days, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Obama’s First 100 Days: Day 1

Since the days of FDR, following a new president’s first 100 days in office has been a tradition in the media. What actions will President Barack Obama take? Will we see policies advanced similar to those of the previous administration? Or will he break away from George W. Bush? To answer these questions, the first 100 days of the Obama presidency will be a good barometer of where we stand as a nation.

President Obama showed up for his first day on the job, and made it very clear that this is no longer George W. Bush’s White House. He quickly set the tone by freezing the salaries of his senior White House officials, imposing the highest limits on lobbying in the history of any administration (according to Obama himself), and calling for the government to disclose more information. For the video, please go to The Huffington Post’s link.

Here’s a breakdown of President Obama’s decisions:

1. White House Pay Freeze

The freeze would hold salaries at their current levels for the approximately 100 White House employees who make over $100,000 per year. As an act of good faith, he wants the administration to be a reflection of the troubles Americans are facing:

Families are tightening their belts, and so should Washington[.]

Those affected by the freeze include the new White House Chief of Staff (Rahm Emanuel), national security adviser (Jim Johnson), and press secretary (Robert Gibbs).

2. New Lobbying Rules

The new rules (a) ban aides from trying to influence the administration when they leave his staff; (b) ban those already hired from working on matters they have previously lobbied on, or to approach agencies that they once targeted; (c) ban lobbyists from giving gifts of any size to any member of Obama’s administration; and (d) require that anyone who leaves his administration cannot try to influence former friends and colleagues for at least two years.

How do you like that, K Street?

3. Greater Government Transparency

Again, Obama made a clear break from Bush policies. He is directing his agencies to follow a very different interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act:

For a long time now, there’s been too much secrecy in this city. The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known.

To be sure, issues like personal privacy and national security must be treated with the care they demand. But the mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should always use it. The Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent, and of holding it accountable. And I expect members of my administration not simply to live up to the letter but also the spirit of this law…

Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.

In his closing, Obama recognized that these new directives will not resolve all the issues, but that hopefully they serve as a small step toward reestablishing a once-held trust between the people and their government:

Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. And that’s why, as of today, I’m directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans — scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs — because the way to solve the problem of our time is — the way to solve the problems of our time, as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives.

The executive orders and directives I’m issuing today will not by themselves make government as honest and transparent as it needs to be. And they do not go as far as we need to go towards restoring accountability and fiscal restraint in Washington. But these historic measures do mark the beginning of a new era of openness in our country. And I will, I hope, do something to make government trustworthy in the eyes of the American people in the days and weeks, months and years to come. That’s a pretty good place to start.

It was just the first day, and only small steps were taken, but we are headed in the right direction.

January 22, 2009 Posted by | Barack Obama, Obama's First 100 Days, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Speech

I was expecting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” rhetoric of hope and unity. I was expecting President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech from 1865, a strike of subtle genius and poetry in the midst of the Civil War. All the media pundits had me thinking I was about to witness the greatest speech my generation would ever hear.

When Obama finished his speech, I asked myself, “that’s it?” My expectations had been much too lofty for anything that he could have conjured up.

But then I decided to watch it again.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

Yes, we remain a young nation. A nation with youthful energy and curiosity. But we must not give in to irresponsibility. We have to show transparency, the good in each of us that strengthens all of us, and act justly upon our convictions.

With “all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness,” President Obama invoked The Declaration of Independence’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But words are mere words without action. We have to break free of the shackles that constrict our spirits, limit the scope of our dreams.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things…

Do not sit back idly. When each brick of the crumbling economy falls upon us, we have to reach high and erect a wall once more. We do not cheat our fellow citizen, and exploit him to turn a profit. Instead, we must build and dig, create and redesign.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control – and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart – not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

The partisan bickering is futile. Gone are the Reagan days of debating whether the government is too big or too small. Does our government work? We must build upon everything based on that question. Where the government is effective, those measures will remain in place. Where the government goes wrong, it will be swiftly remedied. The reason why there is such little faith in government is because hypocritical lawmakers and politicians devote their energy and our tax dollars on arguing over petty matters. When the time comes to judge them, however, they are never accountable. To all politicians, from President Obama to the local school board official, focus on a solution to the problem, not on our differing ideologies.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.

We will not sacrifice our morals and values in the name of national security. We shall not torture and dehumanize the enemy in exchange for a false sense of safety. For over two hundred years, the United States has been viewed abroad as a nation of laws and ideals, of principled men and an unwavering belief in personal freedom. We must close Guantanamo and take our troops out of Iraq to restore our image abroad, to show that the United States has not forgotten the meaning of justice or spurned the world’s trust.

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Mr. President, that was one heck of a speech.

January 21, 2009 Posted by | Barack Obama, Foreign Policy, Law, Media, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What Each of Us Can Do Now

Millions of Americans watched Barack Obama deliver his inaugural speech today. He called for accountability, selflessness, and service. In his speech, President Obama said that each of us must play a role in restoring the U.S.’s image in the world. We all must take part in leading and breaking new ground, promoting innovation and listening to others, healing old wounds and remaining steadfast in the face of the obstacles that lie ahead.

But what exactly can each of us do? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Report for All Voices or Ground Report

All Voices  and Ground Report are global communities where anyone can share news, videos, images, and opinions with respect to news events and people. Essentially a global blog, you can utilize these sites to report on breaking news or something the rest of the world is overlooking. Yes, you can be a journalist, too. Each of us has a voice, so make sure to express your own unique view.

2. Serve your community (local or global) through USAservice.org, AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, or any other service organization

USAservice.org explores the social side of community service. Through this site you can: participate in public service projects already planned within your communities, create your own project and invite others to join in, and even share on the experiences gained and lessons learned.

In AmeriCorps, you can: tutor and mentor disadvantaged youth, fight illiteracy, improve health services, build affordable housing, teach computer skills, clean parks and streams, manage or operate after-school programs, help communities respond to disasters, build organizational capacity, as well as tackle a plethora of other issues facing the particular region in which you’re located. There are 75,000 opportunities, will you seize one of them?

In the Peace Corps, you can work in a foreign country and focus on: education, youth outreach, and community development; business development; agriculture and environment; health and HIV/AIDS; and information technology. Past volunteers have worked in 139 different countries. There are people beyond our borders who can use your help. Will you be there for them?

These are but a few possibilities to explore. It is within each of us to make a difference, and ensure that the fruit of our labor is tomorrow’s joy and prosperity. President Obama’s speech was a plea, requesting the support of all Americans.

It now falls on us to make his words come to fruition.

January 20, 2009 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment