Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Obama's Network Of Campaign Supporters Lives On

by Peter Overby

Just as no other presidential candidate ever had so many volunteers and so much money from so many donors, now Barack Obama will have a grassroots network of unprecedented size and enthusiasm backing him up as president.

The Obama presidential campaign's list of supporters and donors — some 13 million e-mail addresses — is being transformed into a permanent grassroots organization, tied to the Democratic National Committee. It could give the president a powerful tool for dealing with Congress.

The group will be called Organizing for America, just a few letters' change from the campaign committee, Obama for America — which made the announcement last weekend. As usual, it came in an e-mail, with a short video of Obama.

"You built the largest grassroots movement in history and shaped the future of this country. And the movement that you built is too important to stop growing now," Obama says in the video.

In a second video distributed on Friday, former campaign manager David Plouffe said members of the new organization will work on such issues as the economy, energy and health care.

He said this new movement will be different from a political campaign because the president wants "to connect Americans to the debate here in Washington. And I think that's not only good for our democracy and our country, but will also help President Obama succeed in bringing about the change we all fought for in the campaign."

Tom Matzzie, a consultant and former Washington director of the liberal online group, says, "We've never had a political leader who has continued their organizing while in office like this, at this scale. This will be a lot larger than anything that's been done before."

Potential To Backfire

Matzzie sees great things ahead for Organizing for America — and not just as a lobbying machine.

"For the next 40 years, those people will be involved in their communities in a way that was inspired out of the Obama campaign, and they will go on to run for school boards and city council and maybe president some day," Matzzie says.

But there are potential problems.

"This can backfire fairly easily," says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, D.C.

He says members of Congress might not want to hear from the president's support base.

"If they overuse the list, if they flood the Hill with huge mobilization campaigns and it irritates people. … They have to be very careful the way they use this resource," Thurber says.

He also points out that the people who signed up for Obama's campaign might not all feel the same way about specific pieces of legislation.

And what's more, the new caretaker of the list, the Democratic National Committee, is as partisan as you can get.

"Many of these people in this 13 million list may not be that partisan. They liked his theme of bipartisanship," Thurber says.

A DNC spokeswoman said the arrangement is just starting to get worked out.

'A Multiplier Effect'

A private-sector counterpart to Organizing for America might be AARP, the organization for Americans older than 50. It claims 40 million members overall. About 10 percent of them get involved in express advocacy, according to AARP's Jim Dau.

He says people choose to get on the e-mail list, just like the Obama campaign, and those names are golden to the organization.

"There's a multiplier effect because you're not just talking to, you know, me sitting at home. You're talking to someone ... who has demonstrated their ability to talk to their neighbors, their friends, their family and enroll them in the task at hand," Dau says.

But he says activists like these need more than constant calls to action. The organization has to engage them in other ways, too — encouraging get-togethers, asking for opinions, making them feel like part of something bigger.

"When you're asking for feedback, people are going to know that you're listening. Otherwise, you're going to be relegated to either the spam filter or just, you know, mass deletions," Dau says.

That's a lesson that the Obama campaign took to heart. What remains to be seen is whether the wisdom transfers with the list.

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Boehner: Please refrain from making any more boneheaded remarks about biking

by Adam Voiland

In the United States, improving the dismal state of our bicycle infrastructure is hardly a hot button political issue that receives sustained attention from the national press. You’ll get a story here and there from publications such as the New York Times or Washington Post, but, as I learned when I was a reporter at U.S. News & World Report, the odds of successfully pitching editors on what’s seen as a fringe—even laughable issue by the bulk of journalists—are rather slim unless you bring in a service journalism angle as I did in this piece about commuter bikes.

In fact, if it were not for politicians—typically conservative Republican politicians—making boneheaded remarks about bicycling infrastructure, the issue would rarely make prime time. August of 2007, for example, brought this unfortunate display of ignorance on the floor of the House of Representatives courtesy of North Carolina Congressperson Patrick McHenry.

More recently, it was House Minority Leader John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, who made a fool of himself with boneheaded remarks about biking on Face the Nation. In a conversation about the massive stimulus package currently under debate, here’s what Boehner had to say:

“I think there’s a place for infrastructure, but what kind of infrastructure? Infrastructure to widen highways, to ease congestion for American families? Is it to build some buildings that are necessary?” He stated. “But if we’re talking about beautification projects, or we’re talking about bike paths, Americans are not going to look very kindly on this.”

Ummm....sure, Boehner, you're right. Plenty of Americans aren’t accustomed to using their bicycles to commute. Most of us, in fact, are used to living in cities and towns where bicycling infrastructure is so woefully inadequate that the idea a bicycle could be used for anything other than recreational rides in the park is almost unimaginable. So, yeah, naturally some of your constituents are going to be skeptical of what might, at first, sound like pork.

But, honestly, Boehner, what really pisses Americans off is when our politicians make boneheaded remarks that don’t make sense. Let me get this straight: widening highways to ease congestion is a good idea, yet reducing congestion by making it feasible for more people to commute by bicycle is not? Boehner, did it not occur to you that building more bike paths in addition to more highways may, in fact, be one part of the solution for the traffic congestion that threatens the hard-working American families that you’re supposedly concerned about?

The next time you’re stuck in DC traffic, Boehner, here are some tidbits you may want to ponder while you wait:

• More than half of cars trips made by Americans would take less than 20 minutes on a bike, but ninety percent of all trips of between one and three miles or less are taken by car. Likewise, fifty-nine percent of trips less than one mile are made by car. (Source: Federal Highway Administration, National Household Travel Survey, 2001).

• Increasing the bicycle and pedestrian share of trips between one and three miles from the current level of 4 percent to about 10 percent would avoid approximately 21 billions miles of driving. (Source:
Active Transportation for America, 2008.)

I know, I know, the boneheaded part of your brain can’t shake the feeling that investing in bike infrastructure is too expensive and must be some sort of cushy luxury for rich, coastal elites—not something “real” people from Ohio struggling to make ends meet might appreciate. Well, consider:

• For the consumer, the costs of driving per mile traveled far outweighs the cost of biking per mile. (Source: Active Transportation for America, 2008.) Note: There's no point using hard numbers as obviously they shift considerably as gas prices and other factors vary, but there’s no way around the reality that bikes are far more affordable as this website details.

• Building a single mile of a four lane urban highway costs $20 to $80 million per mile, while building a mile of bicycle path costs between a few thousand dollars per mile to $1 million dollars per mile. (Source: Active Transportation for America, 2008.)

• Over the width of one traffic lane, bicycling and walking can move five to 10 times more people than driving can. (
Cycling: The Way Ahead for Towns and Cities, 1999)

Oh, Boehner, if you happen to be feeling a little fat while you’re hanging out in traffic breathing in all the fumes, you might also consider:

• In 2007, less than half of all Americans met the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendation of at least 30 minutes of modest physical activity on most days. (Source:
Active Transportation for America, 2008.)

• Americans spend some $33 billion a year on weight-loss products and services. (
NIDDK, 1999)

• Modest increases in bicycling and walking for short trips could provide enough exercise for 50 million inactive Americans to meet recommended activity levels, erasing a sizable chunk of America’s activity deficit. (Source:
Active Transportation for America, 2008.)

The bottom line: please refrain from making such boneheaded remarks about biking in the future. It makes you look ignorant.

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Why Are Top Political Leaders From Both Parties So Out-Of-Touch With The Public’s Demand For Marijuana Law Reform?

It is hard to imagine liberal House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and conservative Minority Leader John Boehner as soul mates on any discernible level, however, on the issue of marijuana law reform, for entirely different reasons, they’re two peas in a pod.

Shortly after the conclusion of this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Denver, NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano posted a blog highlighting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) comments exhorting the public to take the lead on communicating with their elected policymakers regarding any desired major marijuana law reforms in the upcoming 111th Congress.

With that call to action in the minds of many, American voters elected Democrats into workable majorities in both chambers and elected Barack ‘Change’ Obama—while voters in both Massachusetts and Michigan voted in strong favor for ‘change’ regarding their states’ antiquated marijuana laws—when given the chance and medium to express their viewpoint regarding what other ‘changes’ are on the American peoples’ minds, since the mid 1990s and despite strong, bias media opposition, marijuana law reform has emerged as a major policy change sought by the American public.

House Speaker Pelosi supports medical access to marijuana. That is not in question. However, it is not known whether she publicly endorses decriminalizing marijuana, but, as a longtime representative in the House from San Francisco, she likely supports California laws regarding marijuana, notably the state’s long time decriminalization laws for personal, adult use.

Does she have the power to move medical marijuana through the Congress? Yes, likely she does. Is she going to expend the kind of political capital needed so early in the 111th Congress and this ‘New Dealish’ presidency to accomplish this? I don’t believe so.

Well now, to make matters worse, we have the Republican Minority Leader, John Boehner (R-OH), appearing last Friday afternoon on CNN’s Newsticker, in a Digg-sponsored ‘Question and Answer’, not surprisingly, the #1 question put forward by CNN/Diggers was of course about…marijuana!

Mr. Boehner’s reply on the marijuana prohibition question (which appears at the 3:15 mark of the 22 minute video) is tortured on two levels:

-Boehner’s deference to law enforcement and medical trade associations rather than to his constituents’ views, the Constitution, science, free market values and personal responsibility is, in a word, unfortunate:

-While rattling off DEA-like talking points against marijuana, Rep. Boehner seems to remember mid-rant against marijuana that he 1) often claims to be a libertarian who favors limited taxation, controlling government spending, and maximizing entrepreneurialism and personal freedoms, 2) supports the 9th and 10th Amendments, which largely articulate states’ rights to make their own constitutional laws.

Too bad Boehner has consistently voted against the Hinchey-Rohrabacher Amendment, a spending amendment in Congress that sought to check federal law enforcement’s ability to spend tax dollars harassing state compliant medical marijuana cooperative and dispensaries, and, in effect, recognizing states’ ability to craft greater legal protections for medical cannabis patients and their providers.

After watching Boehner’s verbal gymnastics and political CYA, I could have used a naturally occurring anti-emetic, if you know what I mean!

A Congressional Cannabis Conundrum
The most powerful legislator in the United States, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supports medical access to marijuana, but will not soon likely do anything to solve this long festering public health-law enforcement quandary, and the most powerful Republican legislator in the country is a chain-smoking, libertarian-talking prohibitionist.


The general public who support marijuana law reform (which is about 75% for both decriminalization and medical access) and many members from the working media inquire with NORML daily, ‘Why does marijuana prohibition continue despite its obvious failings?

Regrettably, one need only point to this single, but poignant example, demonstrated by this Pelosi-Boehner cannabis conundrum: Leaders who will not lead.*

*Even when they very likely know better and the American people (common sense, economics and decency) demand it!

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Chinese Dissident Bao Tong Speaks Out

By Austin Ramzy / Beijing

Former senior Chinese official Bao Tong, who spent seven years in prison for sympathizing with democracy advocates, in his apartment in Beijing in January 2009

On Fuxing Road in western Beijing is a vast Soviet-style building that proudly houses old jets, tanks and ships — all memorials to the various military conflicts faced by the People's Republic of China. But just around the corner, in a typical middle-class housing complex, is an unwelcome reminder of how the country manages its political conflicts.

On the sixth floor of an apartment building there lives a veteran of the opaque, unforgiving world of Chinese statecraft. Bao Tong, 76, was a top aide and speechwriter for the secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1980s. Now he lives under virtual house arrest, his every move observed, every visitor screened by a handful of guards, every conversation presumably monitored. The Communist Party would clearly like him to fade into oblivion, to live out the rest of his days caring for his goldfish and taking walks in the park. But Bao Tong has no intention of going out quietly. (See pictures of China on the wild side.)

Over the past month Bao has repeatedly questioned the authoritarian nature of China's central government — in very public ways. He helped draft Charter 08, a lengthy pro-democracy online manifesto initially published in early December by 303 mainland writers, scholars and artists, a number that has since grown to several thousand. Soon after, he released a series of essays through Radio Free Asia that questioned the very motivations and accomplishments of the Party.

Bao Tong says his decision to sign the landmark Charter comes from a long-held regret over joining the Communist Party as a young man. "Sixty years ago I wanted violence. In order to promote Leninism and communism, I joined this Party...I signed Charter 08 to correct my mistake of 60 years ago," Bao said one recent afternoon in the Beijing apartment he shares with his wife. Bao's face is visibly weary, but he sits with an erect posture, and his eyes flash as he discusses history and politics. "This is not about using violent means to change society," he says. "It's about using peaceful, rational means. Everything I do can be boiled down to one word: patriotism."

Charter 08, which is based on Charter 77, a human rights manifesto signed by dissidents in Czechoslovakia in 1977, calls for several political reforms in China including direct elections, a separation of political powers, free speech, legalization of political parties and the creation of an independent judiciary. Critically, it doesn't call for the Communist Party to step down, but envisions a system that advances beyond one-party rule, says Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. "It does not say 'We should set up a party to topple the Party.' They say, 'We must work to outgrow the Party and create conditions for a political system that's not based on one-party rule,'" notes Bequelin. "I think this is very new."

Very new, and very unwelcome. In recent weeks, police have interrogated more than 100 of the document's original signatories. Liu Xiaobo, a dissident scholar who was one of the drafters, was arrested by Beijing police on Dec. 8 and remains in custody. In an article published in an official journal on Jan. 18, Jia Qinglin, China's fourth-highest official, warned the country should avoid multiparty systems, separation of political powers and other "erroneous ideological interferences." And in December, President Hu Jintao warned the country to "not waver" in implementing economic reform, a remark that was interpreted as meaning avoid political debate.

Police have questioned Bao about Charter 08, but his experience as a one-time high-level cadre offers him a degree of protection. A top aide and speechwriter to former Communist Party secretary Zhao Ziyang, Bao keeps a picture of Zhao, who died in 2005, on a bookshelf in his home. Zhao was deposed in May 1989, just before the Tiananmen Massacre, for sympathizing with student demonstrators. Bao was also arrested at that time, and spent seven years in prison for "revealing state secrets" and "counter-revolutionary propagandizing." Rather than silencing him, Bao's prison term convinced him of the need to speak out. "If I hadn't had that experience, there is no way I'd be so clear," he says. "It freed my thinking. It freed my eyes. It freed my mouth."

For the Communist Party, that freedom came to tarnish what was supposed to be a triumphal moment for China. Charter 08 was published thirty years after Deng Xiaoping pushed his reforms onto a weary and scarred nation, an anniversary China was proudly marking as it had grown to the world's third largest economy, tens of millions had been lifted out of poverty and the nation was basking in the afterglow of hosting its first Olympic Games.

But the charter's signatories have not been the only crashers of the Party's party. The global economic crisis has caused thousands of trade-dependent Chinese businesses to close in the cities, and sent millions of workers home to the vast countryside, jobless. Now state leaders are crisscrossing the country giving pep talks about the prospects of future growth in China and urging citizens to not worry about the recent turmoil. Discussion of Charter 08 has been blocked from domestic media and curtailed on mainland blogs and websites; few Chinese know about it. But as the economy slows, a murmur of calls for political reform has emerged.

Chinese officials have said that now, when the country is straining under the growing pressures of the global downturn and spending billions to help create jobs, is the worst time to call for democratization. Bao argues that economic challenges need to be met with political adaptations as well. "Because we have an economic crisis, we need to bring the people together," he says. "We can't take every difference and dissatisfaction and let it intensify. Human rights, democracy, republicanism — these help eliminate conflicts, not intensify conflicts." For now the country's leadership is content to let Bao and China's other democracy advocates stew in anonymity, and hope that once again the Party can grow its way out of trouble.

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Obama White House Looking Into Rove's Claim Of Executive Privilege

Subpoenaed by Rep. John Conyers to testify before Congress, Karl Rove has left the debate over whether or not he is protected from testifying to Barack Obama.

The former Bush strategist had previously refused to appear before the House Judiciary Committee by claiming that executive privileges allowed him to keep his conversations with the president private. With Bush out of office, Rove instructed his lawyer, Robert Luskin, to ask the Obama White House whether the same privileges currently exist.

Asked for an answer at the White House briefing session, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama's legal counsel was still looking into it.

"The office of White House counsel is studying those issues and will advise us when we have a recommendation," Gibbs said.

It is a fairly clever maneuver on Rove's behalf -- forcing Obama to make a judgment on executive privileges that could have ramifications later in his presidency. But it is also, probably, the only move he could have made, beyond acquiescing to Conyers' demand and traveling up to Capitol Hill.

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House GOP member to Rush: Back off


Rush Limbaugh may command a large following, but his caustic comments Monday about the GOP’s congressional leadership have at least one Republican House member defending his colleagues and offering an unusually candid critique of the talk radio powerhouse and his fellow commentators.

Responding to President Obama’s recommendation to Republican congressional leaders last week that they not follow Limbaugh’s lead, the conservative talkmeister said on his show that Obama is “obviously more frightened of me than he is Mitch McConnell. He's more frightened of me, than he is of, say, John Boehner, which doesn't say much about our party."

Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., did not take kindly to this assessment in an interview with Politico Tuesday.

“I think that our leadership, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, are taking the right approach,” Gingrey said. “I mean, it’s easy if you’re Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or even sometimes Newt Gingrich to stand back and throw bricks. You don’t have to try to do what’s best for your people and your party. You know you’re just on these talk shows and you’re living well and plus you stir up a bit of controversy and gin the base and that sort of that thing. But when it comes to true leadership, not that these people couldn’t be or wouldn’t be good leaders, they’re not in that position of John Boehner or Mitch McConnell."

Asked to respond to Gingrey, Limbaugh, in an email to Politico, wrote: “I'm sure he is doing his best but it does not appear to be good enough. He may not have noticed that the number of Republican colleagues he has in the House has dwindled. And they will dwindle more if he and his friends don't show more leadership and effectiveness in battling the most left-wing agenda in modern history. And they won't continue to lose because of me, but because of their relationship with the grassroots, which is hurting. Conservatives want leadership from those who claim to represent them. And we'll know it when we see it.”

The back and forth comes as some on the right speak more openly about what they perceive as the lack of leadership in the Republican Party. Unapologetic conservatives, like Limbaugh would prefer to see elected Republicans confront the new president. But many GOP officials, daunted by the new president’s approval rating and what they believe is fatigue on the part of voters over partisan fighting, are loath to openly criticize Obama.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the GOP member as Rep. Tom Price. Politico regrets the error.

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