First presidential debate spotlights economy, health care


President Obama and Mitt Romney focused on revenue and spending, with an emphasis on health care, in their first presidential debate. 

With the focus on the economy, foreign policy was mentioned only in passing as the candidates squared off Wednesday at the University of Denver.

Obama said Romney's plans to repeal his health care reform passed in 2010 would remove new protections, including mandatory coverage for those with preexisting conditions and coverage for children up until age 26 under their parents' plans.

Romney said such coverage was a matter best left to the states, and reiterated his claims that the federal plan inhibits business growth and costs jobs.

Obama criticized Romney's plan to transition Medicare, the federal insurance program for the elderly, to private insurers, saying it would drive up costs for seniors. Romney said the change was needed to salvage the program.

Romney also outlined his plans for energy independence, which include promoting use of domestic resources, among them coal. Romney also advocated increased drilling on public lands.

The candidates will focus on foreign policy in the third of their three debates, on Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

Democrats return to the economy after Jerusalem detour


It was the nuts-and-bolts convention that nearly broke down over the most ethereal of issues: Jerusalem and God.

But by its third and final night, the Democratic National Convention had gotten back on message: jobs, jobs, staying on course with getting the economy back on track, and — oh, yes — jobs.

It was a course correction after two days in which convention organizers — and, in particular, the campaign’s Jewish surrogates — scrambled first to explain how recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and mentioning God got left out of the party platform, and then hustled to get them back in over the objections of some noisy and unhappy delegates.

The convention in Charlotte, N.C. — like its Republican counterpart, which last week nominated Mitt Romney in Tampa, Fla. — was mostly about the economy.

Foreign policy barely surfaced at either convention, and social issues — while prevalent on the streets outside the Charlotte convention, where protesters on both sides of the abortion debate competed for sidewalk space — were addressed, but not paramount.

Vice President Joe Biden, whose foreign policy experience over decades in the U.S. Senate was made a centerpiece of President Obama’s choice of VP four years ago, barely mentioned foreign policy in his speech Thursday night.

America’s posture overseas was left to two of Thursday’s convention speakers: Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the 2004 nominee who is now a widely touted possibility as secretary of state if Obama wins a second term, and Obama himself.

“Our commitment to Israel’s security must not waver, and neither must our pursuit of peace,” Obama said to applause during a short foreign policy aside in a speech that was otherwise dedicated to staying the course on his plans for economic recovery. “The Iranian government must face a world that stays united against its nuclear ambitions.

Democrats had scrambled to contain an embarrassing breakout after Republicans had seized on the removal of Jerusalem and God from the platform, grabbing headline space Democrats had hoped would contrast the enthusiasm in Charlotte with the relatively subdued Tampa convention.

The language was returned in a quickie session on Wednesday, but that also was not without its awkwardness: the convention chairman, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, had to call for three voice votes before declaring a two-thirds majority. But those on the floor said the vote actually was much closer – and there were boos.

Those who objected ranged from Arab Americans who had praised the removal of the Jerusalem language as an acknowledgment of the claims both Palestinians and Israelis have on the city, to religion-state separatists who objected to the God language, to delegates who were outraged at what they saw as a rushed amendment process.

Jewish Democrats, who helped drive the return of the language, depicted the change as Obama’s initiative and a sign of his control over the party.

“The difference between our platform and the Republican platform is that President Obama knows that this is his platform and he wants it to reflect his personal view,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, told CNN after Robert Wexler, a member of the platform draft committee and a chief Jewish surrogate for the Obama campaign, told JTA that Obama directly intervened to make sure the platform was changed.

“President Obama personally believes that Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel,” Wasserman Schultz said.

But that claim was at odds with repeated statements by Obama administration figures in recent months that Jerusalem remains an issue for final-status negotiations — itself the position of a succession of Republican and Democratic presidencies for decades.

Jewish Democrats acknowledged at the outset of the convention that they needed to address perceptions that Obama was distant from Israel before pivoting to the area where they feel Obama far outpaces Romney among Jewish voters — domestic policy.

Kerry, in his speech, cited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in making the case for Obama’s Israel bona fides.

“Barack Obama promised always to stand with Israel to tighten sanctions on Iran — and take nothing off the table,” Kerry said. “Again and again, the other side has lied about where this president stands and what this president has done. But Prime Minister Netanyahu set the record straight: He said our two countries have 'exactly the same policy … Our security cooperation is unprecedented …' When it comes to Israel, I'll take the word of Israel's prime minister over Mitt Romney any day.”

Yet while the convention was under way, a story broke that underscored the ongoing tensions between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations over how best to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu, a top U.S. lawmaker said, erupted in anger at the U.S. ambassador to Israel over what Israel's government regards as unclear signals from the United States on Iran.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, described for a Michigan radio station, WJR, an encounter he witnessed last month when he was visiting Israel. The interview was picked up Thursday by the Atlantic magazine.

“It was very, very clear the Israelis had lost their patience with the [Obama] administration,” Rogers said.

Rogers described Israeli frustration at what he depicted as the administration's failure to make clear to Israel or Iran whether and when it will use military force to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

By Thursday, the convention’s message about the economy and the role of government in guaranteeing a social safety net was once again front and center — and among Jewish delegates, who crowded the floor sporting Hebrew Barack Obama buttons.

Cheers erupted when Carol Berman, a retiree from Ohio now living in West Palm Beach, Fla., lauded the president’s health care initiative.

“I'm one of the seniors who retired to this piece of heaven on Earth and I'm as happy as a clam,” Berman said. “It's not just the sunshine; it's Obamacare. I'm getting preventive care for free and my prescription drugs for less.”

Berman’s was the kind of “personal story” that Democrats had urged Jewish advocates to use when they made the case for Obama to the 5-10 percent of Jewish voters they estimate voted for Obama in 2008 and might be reconsidering this year. Wasserman Schultz also shared her personal experience with breast cancer in making the pitch for Obama's health care legislation.

The convention’s most sustained standing ovation was for Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman recovering from being shot in the head in January 2011. Giffords came to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, walking on her own with a cane and accompanied by a watchful Wasserman Schultz. The two women are close, having bonded as being the first Jewish women elected to Congress from their respective states.

The theme of collective responsibility informed the one rabbinical benediction of the convention, which closed Wednesday night’s events, by Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Wolpe ad-libbed a Jerusalem reference in his speech, slightly tweaking the prepared remarks delivered to reporters before he spoke.

“You have taught us that we must count on one another, that our country is strong through community, and that the children of Israel — on the way to that sanctified and cherished land, and ultimately to that golden and capital city of Jerusalem — that those children of Israel did not walk through the wilderness alone,” Wolpe said.

Groups Back Obama Budget, Concerned About Tax Proposal


WASHINGTON (JTA)—More than 100 Jewish community organizations are backing President Obama’s 2010 budget while expressing “significant concerns,” but not opposing, a proposed decrease in the tax deduction for charitable contributions.

In a letter sent last week to Congress members, the organizations highlighted four specific Jewish communal priorities, including “comprehensive health care reform” that reduces costs while improving quality and access, and the reauthorization of child nutrition programs.

The groups also declared their support for various discretionary spending programs—including the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the Community Development Block Grant, the Community Services Block Grant and the Social Services Block Grant—and urged the inclusion of funding for the National Housing Trust Fund to build, rehabilitate and preserve housing for low-income families.

“Now, more than ever,” the letter asserted, “this economic crisis requires a federal budget that balances the need for long-term fiscal discipline with the need to sustain critical services in this time of economic crisis.”

The March 19 letter also raised questions about one Obama administration proposal.

“Many in our community have significant concerns” with the Obama administration’s plans to partially finance healthcare reform by the deduction for charitable contributions, the letter said.

It urged the administration to consider the impact of the measure on nonprofit organizations.

Signatories to the letter, which was organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, included the United Jewish Communities, American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, National Council of Jewish Women and the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements, along with dozens of local community relations councils.

One group that did not sign was the Orthodox Union.

Public policy director Nathan Diament said the OU supported the measures endorsed in the letter but declined to sign on because the language objecting to the tax deduction change was not strong enough. Diament said the OU, which represents about 1,000 congregations and operates the largest kosher certification agency in the United States, wanted a “clear statement of opposition” to the reduction in the tax deduction.

JCPA’s Washington director, Hadar Susskind, said the letter took a moderate line because there was ¬≥no community consensus¬≤ on the charitable deduction proposal. Some in the community were worried about it, but others believed it was good policy and unlikely to have much of an effect on nonprofit groups.

“There are varying opinions and nobody really knows what it’s going to do,” Susskind said, “but because it could have a negative impact, this was our attempt to express community concerns without implying opposition.”

Susskind said the issues emphasized in the letter were chosen because they are “big community priorities” that every agency involved in domestic policy cares about. They also encompass both short-term priorities—such as the child nutrition programs that are up for reauthorization this year—and longer-term goals such as health-care reform.

Once in a lifetime


I don’t know about you, but I’ve had it up to here with once-in-a-lifetime events.

Katrina was once in a lifetime. The 2004 tsunami was once in a lifetime. This past year’s wildfires were the worst blazes in living memory. Every other month seems to bring an epic rain or snow that is said to be the storm of the century. And don’t get me started on the polar ice cap.

George W. Bush, the worst president in American history, will turn out to be, God willing, once in a lifetime, as will the officially sanctioned use of torture by American interrogators, the subjugation of the Justice Department by a bunch of right-wing 20-something hacks, and the grotesque intervention of Congress into the Terry Schiavo case. If Dick Cheney isn’t once in a lifetime, there is reason to doubt the existence of divine mercy.

The depth of the unfolding recession, for those who did not experience the Great Depression, is now forecast to be once in a lifetime. Bernie Madoff’s breathtaking Ponzi scheme is — one can only hope — once in a lifetime. The demise of Lehman Brothers, founded in 1850, is once in a lifetime, as will be the extinction of Levitz, the 97-year-old furniture chain, and (as is plausible) of Dodge (b. 1914) and Kmart (b. 1962).

Until this recession, India and China were poised to overtake the U.S. economy, which would surely constitute a once-in-a-lifetime development, like the fall of communism, tobacco, butter, girdles and Esperanto.

The impending deaths of the print newspaper, the network evening news and the television networks themselves — like the prior deaths of the buggy, vaudeville and silent movies — are bound to be experienced as once in a lifetime. The demises of slide rules, typewriters, Polaroid instant cameras and VHS tapes each marked the end of an era. TV Guide is going the route of Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, Look and Life; when either Time or Newsweek folds, its surviving competitor will doubtless send it off with a once-in-a-lifetime obit.

Sept. 11 was once in a lifetime, unless you lived through Pearl Harbor. It is wishful thinking to imagine that the malicious explosion of a nuclear device is not in the world’s foreseeable future, and if, keinahora, that happens, it will surely be labeled — optimistically — once in a lifetime.

On the upside, the election of a black American president is totally without precedent, and it is not inconceivable that a woman will eventually follow him to the White House, though if it’s Sarah Palin, she stands a decent chance of wresting worst-ever laurels from Bush.

My discomfort at being crowded by this surfeit of once-in-a-lifetime happenings is partly about hype, and mostly about mental hygiene.

The mainstream news media have no vested interest in proportionality. With so many things competing for our attention, the only way for media-owning corporations to capture our eyeballs is to inflate everything to Armageddon dimensions. Every lurid local crime becomes a national melodrama; every flare-up on the planet is depicted as a precursor to World War III; every scandal is Watergate, or something-else-gate. We are inundated with the Ten Worst This and Ten Best That, while long-simmering atrocities truly deserving of notice, like Darfur or the tuberculosis pandemic, barely make it onto the radar screen.

No wonder the world has the jitters. We are daily assaulted by so much hyperbole that it is nearly impossible to know what is important any more. It is undeniable that we live in a time of big change, but if we did not also live in a time of big media, I am not convinced that we would experience our lives as a relentless onslaught of cliffhangers, crises and catastrophes.

To every thing, Ecclesiastes tells us, there is a season, but you wouldn’t know it from the media, which know only one season, which is BREAKING NEWS. Real life has natural rhythms; it plays out on many stages, from the personal and private to the public and historical. But the culture of THIS JUST IN homogenizes those differences. Its imperative is to monetize our attention, and the easiest way to do that is to see as much as possible through once-in-a-lifetime lenses.

I don’t mean to diminish the pain of the economic meltdown, or the significance of climate change, or the symbolic breakthrough of the Obama inauguration or the dizzying transformations being wrought by technology. But it does no good for us as citizens if everything is as screamingly urgent as everything else, and it does no good for us as people if our nervous systems are constantly being bombarded by superlatives. How can our leaders set priorities, how will we ever agree on trade-offs, if public discourse only consists of capital letters? How can we linger in the intimacies and mysteries of existence, how will we truly know what’s worth caring about, if shock and rupture is the only language our culture knows how to speak?

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Hope vs. slippery slope


Over 65 group could decide who wins this year’s presidential election


Many millions of dollars are being spent in both current presidential campaigns emphasizing personal qualities over clarifying the candidates’ stands on the issues. Now seniors take their politics seriously: While the 65-and-older demographic comprises only 12 percent of the nation’s population, in the last presidential election 73 percent of seniors reported that they voted—the largest percentage of any age group, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey.

But neither candidate on the campaign trail has spoken often on issues that matter to seniors, and when they have, it’s been underreported by much of the media. So at the end of the day, how different are the candidates—and their respective political parties—from each other when it comes to issues of great importance to seniors, such as long-term care, Social Security, medical insurance and taxes?

Simply put, “the real fault lines between the two candidates’ positions are over how to treat people in the highest tax brackets. It gets to the heart of their economic philosophies,” said Leonard E. Burman, a senior fellow with the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan Washington-based tax reform group.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), specifically through his campaign Web site and implicitly through the official platform of the Democratic Party, would shore up the needs of seniors at the lower end of the economic spectrum. He has proposed to eliminate income taxes for seniors making less than $50,000 a year.

“This will provide an immediate tax cut averaging $1,400 to 7 million seniors and relieve millions from the burden of filing tax returns,” the official Obama literature asserts.

Additionally, Obama would rescind the Bush administration’s income tax cut (that Democrats claim has benefited only the nation’s wealthiest citizens) and apply the windfall to his social programs, together with revenues from a slight tax rate increase for those earning more than $250,000. The increase would secure Social Security—without cuts and raising the retirement age—and finance his ambitious national health care proposal.

Although seniors already enjoy universal health care through Medicare, Obama argues that the program requires some tweaking because “catastrophic expenses” were “routine” and that, as currently applied, Medicare benefits do not cover expenses for most long-term care. His goal, he told the AARP, was to ensure that the program “protect seniors and families from impoverishment and debt.”

Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) and Obama’s positions are similar regarding the estate tax—sometimes referred to by the Bush administration as the “death tax.” Both candidates would retain a reduced version of the estate tax, although McCain would reduce it more than Obama, according to Factcheck.org and Snopes.com.

The Democratic candidate has proposed to apply the tax only to estates valued at more than $3.5 million ($7 million for couples), holding the maximum rate at 45 percent. McCain would apply it to estates worth more than $5 million ($10 million for couples), with a maximum rate of 15 percent.

Unlike Obama, McCain would renew the Bush income tax cut when it expires, which the Republicans believe will give citizens more cash to choose their own health care coverage options, should they use their rebate to pay for it.

The McCain attitude shaping policy—and that of the Republican Party, generally—is that seniors can manage their own lives without the intervention of government and that they should be free to choose their own way to solve many of these concerns. The Republican Party would not offer income-tax relief to seniors with incomes less than $50,000. The GOP believes that seniors already get federal help through Social Security and Medicare and often have economic advantages over other demographic groups.

It should be noted that McCain is a major proponent of privatizing Social Security, a program he termed “disgraceful” this summer, touching off protests by seniors at his campaign appearances in Pennsylvania and Colorado.

For seniors requiring expensive long-term care, McCain would privatize services and leave choices to individuals. He is a proponent of recent state-based experiments such as Cash and Counseling or the Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly, through which seniors are granted a monthly stipend from which they can choose to pay home-care workers and purchase care-related services and goods.

McCain told AARP that eldercare matters should be decided within families and that “any way we can help caregivers” offset costs through tax credits or other financial incentives should be considered as “part of an overall policy regarding health care.”

How the senior vote will affect the presidential race in November is still a matter of debate. In 2004, voters ages 65 and older went Republican for the first time in years, backing President Bush more heavily than the rest of the electorate. Many of today’s seniors were influenced by Reagan conservatism, according to analysts in both parties, and they’re better off financially than the Roosevelt-era seniors, a fact that may favor the current Republican candidate.

Both campaigns are comin’ a courtin’ the senior vote. Obama has appointed a national seniors constituency director and the McCain campaign has launched an effort to encourage seniors to talk to their peers. States with the largest proportion of seniors based on total population—Florida, Pennsylvania and Iowa—are considered “swing states,” meaning that pensioners could very well influence the outcome of the national election.

How well informed senior voters will be is perhaps the most important issue of all.

Stanley Mieses is a writer, editor and broadcast commentator based in New York.