Monday, December 24, 2012

Obama attends Inouye memorial in Hawaii

President Obama came to a veterans cemetery here on Sunday to honor the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, less as the nation’s top politician and more as a native son of Hawaii paying tribute to his roots.
The president had already formally memorialized Inouye (D-Hawaii), who died last week at age 88 after 50 years in the Senate, on Friday at the National Cathedral in Washington.

But on Sunday, sitting between first lady Michelle Obama and Inouye’s wife, Irene, Obama did not speak. He had no formal role at the ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific — nicknamed “Punchbowl” for the terrestrial imprint left by volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago.

Yet the moment at the cemetery had enormous emotional resonance for the president, who spent many formative years living with his grandparents in Hawaii. In the space of 90 minutes, he would attend the memorial service of a man who from afar had shaped his political thinking and remember another man who directly shaped his life choices.

Moments after the ceremony honoring Inouye ended, Obama traveled a half-mile southeast within the same cemetery, to Site 44, Row 400, of Columbarium No. 1 — the grave site of his maternal grandfather, Stanley A. Dunham.

Like Inouye, Dunham was a World War II veteran. Obama has said that Dunham and his wife, Madelyn, taught him the “idea of America.” He has recounted how his grandfather, “Gramps,” gave him dog tags “from his time in Patton’s Army,” and the future president came to understand that “his defense of this country marked one of his greatest sources of pride.”

Dunham died 20 years ago. The ashes of his wife and daughter, Stanley Anne, Obama’s mother, were scattered over the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii.

And while Obama has said that his grandparents influenced how he lived his life, Inouye had a profound effect on his politics. Last week, Obama said Inouye was “perhaps my earliest political inspiration.”

As part of the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II, Inouye lost his right arm protecting his unit from a grenade. In the memorial last week, Obama said he remembered watching Inouye ask questions during the Watergate hearings in the 1970s.

“The person who fascinated me most was this man of Japanese descent with one arm, speaking in this courtly baritone, full of dignity and grace,” Obama said. “This was a man who, as a teenager, stepped up to serve his country even after his fellow Japanese Americans were declared enemy aliens; a man who believed in America even when its government didn’t necessarily believe in him. That meant something to me. It gave me a powerful sense — one that I couldn’t put into words — a powerful sense of hope.”

On Sunday, surviving members of the 442nd Regiment and their families surrounded the ceremony. The formal eulogies were left to Inouye’s colleagues and staffers.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Inouye would only talk about the war in private, never in public. Reid had had an hour-long conversation with him just before Inouye, who was experiencing respiratory problems, went to the hospital, a little more than a week before he died.

“We talked as though there would be many tomorrows, but there wouldn’t be any,” Reid said.

In remarks by Reid and others, it was hard not to miss the nostalgia for an era of bipartisanship that Inouye reflected and one that seems to be disappearing with his generation.

Reid recalled how he had received a call last week from former Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), expressing his desire to pay his respects to Inouye in the Capitol Rotunda. Dole, who normally uses a wheelchair, insisted on walking and viewing Inouye’s casket directly.

“As a result of that war, both had lost the use of their right arms,” Reid recalled, and could work together despite their political differences.

Inouye “was a Democrat who would never hesitate to cooperate with a Republican for the good of the country,” Reid said. “Danny was the best senator among us all,” he said.

Inouye’s family has not decided on an exact burial spot. One option is Section D, near the center of the cemetery, where many of his comrades from the 442nd Combat Team are buried. His first wife, Margaret Shinobu Awamura, who died in 1996, is also buried there.

Near the end of the ceremony, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) said he was saying goodbye to a brother who had paved the way for future generations.

“He made it possible for minorities like me, and later on, President Obama, to serve at the highest levels,” he said.

Then Inouye received full military honors — including a four-jet flyover — and a military officer delivered folded American flags that had been draped over Inouye’s casket to his wife and son Ken.
As the officer presented the flags, Obama remained attentive and silent.

Monday, December 17, 2012

President Obama’s enough-is-enough Newtown speech

President Obama’s speech Sunday night at a memorial service for the victims — mostly children — of a mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut was a forceful assertion that the politics surrounding guns (and gun control) must change.

“We can’t tolerate this anymore,” Obama said. “We are not doing enough and we will have to change.” (Full transcript of speech here.)

Obama noted that this was the fourth time in his presidency that he has had to grieve with a community after an incident of mass murder with a gun. But, his speech in Connecticut Sunday was a significant departure from the other addresses he had given to communities torn apart by shooting sprees.

Speaking in Aurora, Colorado just days after a gunman opened fire in a movie theater this summer, Obama was somber, subdued — and decidedly apolitical. The closest Obama got to making a statement (of any sort) came in the speech’s last line in which he said: “I hope that over the next several days, next several weeks, and next several months, we all reflect on how we can do something about some of the senseless violence that ends up marring this country, but also reflect on all the wonderful people who make this the greatest country on Earth.”

It was a very different Obama who took the stage at the Newtown memorial Sunday, a president not just saddened by the tragedy but fed up with the lack of forward movement in hopes of preventing the next one.

One sentence in Obama’s speech sums up his state of mind. “I’ll use whatever power this office holds…in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this,” he said — a line the incumbent never came close to uttering in Aurora or, before that, in Tucson in 2011

What Obama’s speech seemed to signal is that, at least in his mind, a tipping point has been reached — that the slaughter of 20 first graders should not be soon forgotten, that it should mean something. 

His critics will note that he offered no specifics as to where he would hope to change laws on guns and that his speech in Newtown, unlike the address in Aurora, came after his second term was assured and he knew he would never need to stand for election again.

Both facts are true. But neither subtract from the fact that Obama could have very easily delivered a speech heavy on empathy and light on anything in the way of a call to action. That he chose to go in a very different direction is a telling indication of his commitment to try to make something happen on gun laws.

Obama’s speech Sunday night could be summed up in three words: Enough is enough. Now, can he lead a divided nation to see things his way?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Obama Plans for Climate Deal as Fiscal Cliff Negotiations Rage

As leaders in Washington obsess about the fiscal cliff, President Barack Obama is putting in place the building blocks for a climate treaty requiring the first fossil- fuel emissions cuts from both the U.S. and China.
State Department envoy Todd Stern is in Doha this week working to clear the path for an international agreement by 2015. While Obama failed to deliver on his promise to start a cap-and-trade program in his first term, he’s working on policies that may help cut greenhouse gases 17 percent in 2020 in the U.S., historically the world’s biggest polluter. 

Obama has moved forward with greenhouse-gas rules for vehicles and new power plants, appliance standards and investment in low-emitting energy sources. He’s also called for 80 percent of U.S. electricity to come from clean energy sources, including nuclear and natural gas, by 2035. 

“The president is laying the foundations for real action on climate change,” Jake Schmidt, who follows international climate policy for the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview in Doha. “Whether or not he decides to jump feet first into the international arena, we’ll see.”
Envoys from more than 190 nations are entering their second week of talks today at the United Nations conference working toward a global warming treaty. Their ambition is to agree to a pact in 2015 that would take force in 2020. It would supersede limits on emissions for industrial nations under the Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. never ratified.

Quiet Effort

Obama’s push is being pursued without fanfare as the administration and Congress grapple to avert a budget crisis and $607 billion in automatic spending cuts. Unlike 2009, when Obama failed to prevent the collapse of climate talks in Copenhagen, the U.S. can point to more concrete actions it’s taking in the fight global warming. 

He has more ammunition at hand. The Environmental Protection Agency is required under the Clean Air Act to move ahead with regulations on emissions from existing power plants. Those are responsible for about a third of U.S. emissions, the largest chunk. 

Measures such as those, along with continued low natural gas prices and state actions, can cut emissions 16.3 percent by 2020, Resources for the Future, a research firm, estimates. Emissions already are down 8.8 percent from 2005 levels, according to Jonathan Pershing, a State Department negotiator in Doha.
`Stronger Position' 

“The U.S. is in a much stronger position going into the Doha talks despite failure of Congress to pass comprehensive climate legislation,” said Trevor Houser, a former U.S. climate negotiator who served during the Copenhagen meeting. “For countries like China that were able to hide behind a perception of U.S. inaction, the fact that U.S. emissions are falling helps increase pressure. It takes away the excuse that action is stalled because of the U.S.” 

A summer of extreme weather also is supporting the U.S. delegation in the talks by raising public awareness and concern about the risks of climate change, Pershing said last week in Doha. So far this year, superstorm Sandy devastated the East Coast while wildfires raged in the west and a record drought wrecked crops in the Midwest. 

“The combination of those events is certainly changing the minds of Americans and making clear to people at home the consequences of the increased growth in emissions,” he said at a Nov. 26 news conference in Doha.

Increasing Concern

The portion of Americans who say climate change will affect them a “great deal” or by a “moderate” amount rose by 13 points to 42 percent from March to September, and 68 percent said global warming will hurt future generations, up from 59 percent in May 2011, according to a poll by Yale University and George Mason University. 

“That number barely budged for four years, then suddenly jumps,” Andrew Light, coordinator of climate policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based research group with ties to the Obama administration. “If you did same survey today, after Sandy, the number would be even higher.” 

Light notes that the number of Americans who believe climate change is real climbed to 70 percent in September from 57 percent in 2010. The number of people who say global warming isn’t happening has fallen almost by half, to 12 percent today from 20 percent over the same period.

Quiet Effort

To date, few of the administration’s programs get attention away from Washington and the environmental groups following them. 

An EPA rule targeting mercury emissions, for example, would further boost the cost of burning coal, making cleaner-burning natural gas more attractive. California, the world’s ninth- largest economy, has started its cap-and-trade program, covering 85 percent of emissions in the state. 

Such policies “are just the beginning,” said Robert Stavins, director of Harvard University’s Environmental Economics Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He expects the U.S. to meet its goal of cutting emissions 17 percent. While that’s less than the 40 percent scientists say is needed. European Union’s pledge to reduce pollutants 20 percent by 2020 and says it will go to 30 percent if others follow. 

“The interesting thing is that for the past three UN climate conferences, the U.S. delegation has never talked about this,” Stavins said in an interview. “They haven’t been interested in taking credit internationally for what’s already in place. When I mention this to other parts of the world, people are shocked.” 

The silence, he said, is understandable in part because the “last thing” the Obama administration wants is for State Department officials overseas making it appear as if the White House was trying to “take an end run around the Congress” on climate policy. 

“It would have been very bad for the president’s re- election,” he said.