Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Matt Miller on Hurricane Sandy and Plight of Poor Children

Matt Miller with a powerful, thoughtful column on the similarities between Hurricane Sandy and the plight of poor children – yet the very different responses by oursociety:

There’s something powerful yet perplexing in our response to the havoc wrought by Hurricane Sandy.

The universal impulse is empathy for those who’ve been hurt through no fault of their own and a determination to mobilize collectively via government to ease the pain and fix the damage. Yes, of course, there are utility contractors, religious groups and nonprofits like the Red Cross doing essential work – every hand is needed on deck — but we rightly expect government to lead when it comes to coping with calamity.

The perplexing thing is this: Why is our moral instinct so different when it comes to natural disasters like Sandy as opposed to slow-motion man-made disasters, such as the fate of millions of poor children languishing in failing schools? Why do some bad things that are outside people’s control elicit empathy and a thirst for urgent response – and other bad things outside people’s control persist for decades in the face of de facto indifference?

We can pretend otherwise, but indifference is ultimately what we’ve shown poor children in the United States. These kids come into the world with disadvantages beyond their control. As a society we then make matters worse by leaving them poorly fed and largely untutored before they reach school age and then by assigning most of them to the least qualified teachers and shabbiest school facilities in the country.

The impact on their lives – not to mention the loss to the economy, when so much human potential is left untapped – vastly exceeds any damage Sandy will do. Our indifference helps explain why upward mobility is now greater in most of Europe than in the United States.

Yet we don’t see wall-to-wall coverage. We don’t see Ali Velshi reporting for hours from urban classrooms whose kids are knee-deep in despair just as surely as if they were treading water in Atlantic City. We don’t see Erin Burnett tracking the tide of neglect that’s lapping at these students’ feet just as Sandy swelled the waters Burnett patrolled in lower Manhattan.

When a hurricane hits the eastern seaboard, Florida, or New Orleans, or when tornados hit Alabama, or when an earthquake hits California, or when levees overflow in Missouri, or a terrible draught hits the Midwest, we’re all in this together. But when millions of people lose their homes to foreclosure, they were greedy speculators; when millions of people lose their jobs through no fault of their own and go on food stamps and receive unemployment benefits, they’re worthless leaches on society. What are we coming to??? It’s always been the core of the greatness of America that we all feel like we’re our brother’s keeper for our fellow citizens, even if our brother has different color skin, prays to a different god, was born in a different country, loves someone of the same gender, or (heaven forbid!) votes for someone of a different party. So sad…

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Gloria Romero on Schools Named After Civil Rights Leaders

Gloria Romero echoes Matt Miller’s points about millions of students, year after year, languishing in failing schools, many ironically named after civil rights leaders:

... we have a habit of naming schools after civil rights legends. But should a school that bears such a name also be among our state's chronically lowest-performing schools?

Last May, the Navy launched a new cargo ship, the USNS Cesar Chavez. What reaction would there be if that ship had sunk on its maiden voyage? Would we tolerate the drowning of its crewmembers? Surely, there would be an immediate call for a commission to "get to the roots" of this tragedy.

Yet, we allow schools named after heroic leaders to sink, year after year. Our students "drown" in chronically underperforming schools. Where are the inquiries?

This question is particularly relevant as we await release of California's Department of Education's List of 1,000 chronically underperforming schools. This compilation is based on a law I wrote that mandated giving parents access to these "watch lists," which previously were compiled by bureaucrats and then just left on a shelf in Sacramento. The idea behind the law was to spotlight underperforming schools, to begin their transformation with parental knowledge and participation.

There are some 35 California schools named after Cesar Chavez. Almost all are identified as "Program Improvement" (PI) schools – which is a bureaucratic label meaning "failing." Tens of thousands of students are "drowning" in these chronically underperforming schools. No whistles are blown. We just step back and watch them sink; and we also seem to blame the students for the educational equivalent of not knowing how to swim.

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Fordham Institute on States with Most Powerful Teachers Unions

A VERY interesting new study – with a handful of surprises – by the Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now (which is affiliated with DFER) on which states have the most powerful teachers unions. Interestingly, in Hawaii, ranked #1 (shouldn’t it be #50?), there’s quite a bit of reform going on – see the slides I sent around after visiting there in August, posted at: www.tilsonfunds.com/Hawaiiedreform.pdf:

Here’s a summary:

This timely study represents the most comprehensive analysis of American teacher unions’ strength ever conducted, ranking all fifty states and the District of Columbia according to the power and influence of their state-level unions. To assess union strength, the Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now examined thirty-seven different variables across five realms:

The strength of teacher unions in the U.S.

1) Resources and Membership
2) Involvement in Politics
3) Scope of Bargaining
4) State Policies
5) Perceived Influence

The study analyzed factors ranging from union membership and revenue to state bargaining laws to campaign contributions, and included such measures such as the alignment between specific state policies and traditional union interests and a unique stakeholder survey. The report sorts the fifty-one jurisdictions into five tiers, ranking their teacher unions from strongest to weakest and providing in-depth profiles of each. 

Download and read the full study here.

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TEACHED Films Available Free Online

Kelly Amis’s three TEACHED films are available for free online at: www.snagfilms.com/films/search?q=teached:

TEACHED Vol. I Premieres Online with SnagFilms
Film Series about Education Equality in America now available for Free Online Viewing
Washington, DC - The first three films of the innovative TEACHED short film series--The Path to Prison, The Blame Game: Teachers Speak Out and Unchartered Territory--premiere online today with SnagFilms, a distributor specializing in independent and documentary film founded by internet pioneer Ted Leonsis and backed by venture capitalist Miles Gilburne and Revolution LLC founder Steve Case.

Produced and directed by a former teacher, education writer and first-time filmmaker, the TEACHED short films provide a candid assessment of the American education system, revealing the extent and impact of systemic failures and lingering race and income-based inequities on urban, minority youth in particular.

The first three films of the series, referred to collectively as "TEACHED Vol. I," premiered at the Napa Valley Film Festival in November 2011 and have since won "Outstanding Achievement for Short Documentary" at the Williamsburg International Film Festival and the jury prize for "Spirit of Independence" at the Amsterdam Film Festival.

"The short film format was designed to be more conducive for education, non-profit and student groups to use in outreach and community-building events," says filmmaker Kelly Amis, "The films can easily be interspersed with guest speakers, panel discussions, audience participation and strategic planning. In this way, the films--and ideas about how individuals can get involved--can be presented to viewers at the same time. The short film format is also responsive to today's growing demand for online short videos. We want to reach a broad, diverse audience to join the fight for education equality and we think free, short films online will support that effort. We are so excited to be featured by SnagFilms; it's a great opportunity."

The TEACHED Vol. I films premiering online today are:

·         The Path to Prison  (7 min.) 
A former gang-member from South Central, Los Angeles helps explain how so many capable and intelligent young men—especially African-American males—end up uneducated and incarcerated in the 'home of the free.'

·         The Blame Game: Teachers Speak Out  (16 min.) 
Public school teachers speak candidly about their profession and the consequences for students—especially urban minority students—of policies that treat all teachers as equal and make it difficult to fire a teacher even in the most extreme circumstances.

·         Unchartered Territory (17 min.)
Featuring some of the most successful pioneers of this still-developing frontier, Unchartered Territory explains what charter schools are, why they were created and why some are performing so well and others…not so much.

About the Filmmaker
Amis started her career as a Teach for America teacher in South Central, Los Angeles and has been an advocate for education equality ever since. A Fulbright Scholar, Amis served as a Legislative Aide for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Director of Education for Fight for Children, and Program Director for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. She launched Loudspeaker Films in 2009 as an independent film production company committed to social justice issues. TEACHED is Loudspeaker Films’ first project. 

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StudentsFirst NY Responds to Deborah Kenny on Rating Teachers

Micah Lasher of StudentsFirst NY responds to Deborah Kenny’s NYT op ed:

Charter school leader Deborah Kenny’s op-ed in today’s The New York Times argues against the move by many states toward teacher evaluations based on multiple measures, including both student progress on achievement tests and the reviews of principals. She criticizes the evaluation systems, in essence, for being too rigid for a profession as complex as teaching.

Her concerns are not without merit. However, Dr. Kenny’s charter schools – by dint of their legal status – already have the full power to hire and fire teachers at will. This, of course, obviates the need for the kind of formal teacher evaluations that our traditional public schools, which serve the vast majority of our kids, so desperately need.

Attacking new teacher evaluation systems that are, for the first time, enabling district public schools to make decisions based on teacher quality, does violence to the cause of improving the quality of education for the overwhelming majority of students who don’t attend charter schools.

Let me stipulate a few things. First, I wholeheartedly support the kind of quality education that Dr. Kenny’s schools provide to their students. She and I would agree that all students should have such an option, and that we should get rid of the statutory and political obstacles that restrict school choice. We’d also agree that the kind of freedom her schools enjoy, to make decisions based on what’s in the best interest of students, should be expanded to all district schools.

But that’s not on the table right now. In traditional public schools, teachers unions have spent years successfully building a political consensus in opposition to giving principals that kind of power – which is why reform-minded policymakers, who deal in the art of the possible, have enacted complex and, yes, imperfect systems for evaluating teachers. These systems, nonetheless, mark a watershed moment in education policy: for the first time, teacher quality will matter in staffing decisions. This is an unqualified step in the right direction.

Dr. Kenny’s argument boils down to this: until all principals have full authority to remove ineffective educators based on pedagogical judgments, the longstanding status quo – in which teacher quality has no role whatsoever in decision-making – should persist.

What then, for the more than 90% of New York’s students who don’t have seats in a charter school like the ones run by Dr. Kenny?

Ironically, this is the same argument made by the defenders of the status quo: until we have a perfect measure, there should be no measuring. (Which, as a practical matter, would have the effect of slowing down the development of that elusive “perfect” measure.)

When those who don’t actually want accountability make this argument, it’s disingenuous. Coming from someone who does, it’s unhelpful – and by undermining an increasing focus on teacher quality in public education, it’s destructive.

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Choice, Merit Pay on Ballot in Washington, Idaho

A spot-on editorial in the WSJ earlier this week. Kudos to DFER’s Lisa Macfarlane for leading the charge there:

School Reform on the Ballot

Unions try to block choice and merit pay in Washington and Idaho.

The education reform movement has been gaining speed across the country, and a pair of important ballot initiatives next week in Washington and Idaho will either extend or retard that progress.

Evergreen State voters will decide on Initiative 1240, which would allow up to 40 charter schools over a five-year period. A mere 40 charters sounds very modest in a state with 2,345 public schools. But Washington is one of only nine states that has no charter schools, and three times—in 1996, 2000 and 2004—the Washington Education Association and its union allies have used their dues money and scare tactics to defeat charter initiatives.

The losers have been Washington students, about one in four of whom fails to graduate from high school in four years. That puts the state 37th in the nation for high school completion. Fewer than half of fourth and eighth graders were proficient on national reading and math tests in 2011.

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Brooklyn Prospect Charter School Increases Diversity

Now in its fourth year, Brooklyn Prospect Charter School is one of a small but growing group of schools that actively seeks to fill its seats with students from different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Researchers say schools like it are getting a boost from urban middle-class parents who are quietly saying "No" to the typical suburban exodus once their kids reach kindergarten.

"Many of them express a deep attachment to the city," said University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau. "They see the suburbs as sterile, as boring. They also see the suburbs as not a realistic preparation for their children for life."

These parents increasingly push local schools to accommodate them, a development that Lareau says is "good for cities and good for America."

Observers caution that the trend of white middle-class parents sticking with urban schools is still small and won't soon reverse the USA's decidedly mixed record on school integration since the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education, which declared "separate but equal" schools unconstitutional.

At the moment, researchers say, the phenomenon seems limited to a handful of mostly East Coast cities: New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington. But it's also happening in New Orleans, Chicago, Denver and San Francisco.

"All we can say at this point is that this provides the best opportunity in a generation for us to integrate our urban schools," said Mike Petrilli, whose the new book The Diverse Schools Dilemma, appears in stores . 

Another, Jennifer Stillman'sGentrification and Schools: The Process of Integration When Whites Reverse Flight, appeared last August. A third book, MarketingSchools, Marketing Cities, by Temple University education researcher Maia Cucchiara, is due out this spring.

For activists who never gave up on the dream of integration, Petrilli said, the change is palpable. "For four decades now, the issue of urban schools has been one of predominantly poor and minority kids and how to serve them well," he said. "Suddenly we have this influx of middle-class kids."

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Teacher Vote on Newark Contract Delayed

The teacher vote on the Newark contract has been delayed, likely until Friday. Quite a spirited debate!

On one side of the table was the union firebrand Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. On the other was the state education commissioner handpicked by Gov. Chris Christie, who became a star among fellow Republicans for aggressively taking on public employee unions.

During months of intense and late-night negotiations for a new teachers contract for the chronically troubled Newark school system, the parties settled on what they believed would be a landmark compromise.

At the center of it was merit pay — the idea of paying teachers based on performance that has long been a flash point between critics of teachers’ unions who believe it would increase accountability, and union leaders who fear that performance would be based on test scores rather than the subtleties of classrooms.

Though Ms. Weingarten had criticized what she calls “merit pay schemes,” she and the other union leaders agreed to embrace the concept in exchange for a promise that teachers would have a rare role in evaluating performance, declaring it a way to rebuild respect for a $1 billion school system that has bled students and money to the suburbs and, increasingly, to charter schools.

Joseph Del Grosso, the leader of the local union who was jailed for striking 40 years ago, has been telling his members that approving the contract will turn them into “heroes.”

But suspicion tends to run high in this New Jersey city, long rived by politics of race and class. Many teachers worry that the bonuses will never appear. And a faction has staged an insurrection against union leaders, saying the contract will weaken job security and pit teacher against teacher. 

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Doug Lemov on Training Teachers

Doug Lemov with an article in the WSJ recently rooted in his new book, Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better (www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/111821658X/tilsoncapitalpar), and the implications for training teachers:

No one disputes that practice is the way to prepare for a cello concerto or a tennis match—complex, physically challenging activities that have to be executed without a coach's immediate direction or the chance for a do-over. But these activities are not unique. Thousands of other tasks that are done "live"—from delivering employee performance reviews to examining a patient, from hearing a customer complaint to reacting to a student's question—would benefit from practice beforehand. The problem is that we seldom think of these other kinds of work as the sort of things that can be improved by routine and repetition.

…Some of these strategies about practice are making their way into higher education. My colleague Norman Atkins, founder of the Relay Graduate School of Education in New York, likes to invoke the example of Michael Jordan, whose demanding methods of practice "reset" the habits of the Chicago Bulls and improved the team. Mr. Atkins adds, "Once you have good teachers who as a matter of course like to practice and rehearse and think, it's the most professional thing you can do. It will raise the expectations of teams in their field as well."

So his graduate school, in contrast to more theory-heavy programs, preps teachers for what they will do all day on the job. And he finds that they love it. "What they appreciate about practice is that they get immediate feedback focused on small bite-sized moves in a way they can't when they are teaching for real. And everybody gets a turn. If you swing and miss, you swing again."

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Asian Americans and NYC's Elite Public Schools

Two interesting articles about Asians. The first is about how they have come to dominate the elite public schools in NYC, where admission is granted solely by one score on one 95-question test (pure idiocy IMO):

On Saturday, more than 15,000 students are expected to file into classrooms to take a grueling 95-question test for admission to New York City’s elite public high schools. (The exam on Sunday, for about 14,000 students, was postponed until Nov. 18 because of Hurricane Sandy.)

No one will be surprised if Asian students, who make up 14 percent of the city’s public school students, once again win most of the seats, and if black and Hispanic students win few. Last school year, of the 14,415 students enrolled in the eight specialized high schools that require a test for admissions, 8,549 were Asian.  

Because of the disparity, some have begun calling for an end to the policy of using the test as the sole basis of admission to the schools, and last month, civil rights groups filed a complaint with the federal government, contending that the policy discriminated against students, many of whom are black or Hispanic, who cannot afford the score-raising tutoring that other students can. The Shis, like other Asian families who spoke about the exam in interviews in the past month, did not deny engaging in extensive test preparation. To the contrary, they seemed to discuss their efforts with pride.

They also said they were puzzled about having to defend a process they viewed as a vital steppingstone for immigrants. And more than a few saw the criticism of the test as an attack on their cultures, as troubling to them as grumblings about the growing Asian presence in these schools and the prestigious colleges they feed into. “You know: ‘You’re Asian, you must be smart,’ ” said Jan Michael Vicencio, an immigrant from Manila and a junior at Brooklyn Tech, one of the eight schools that use the test for admission. “And you’re not sure it’s a compliment or an insult. We get that a lot.”

Almost universally, the Asian students described themselves on one edge of a deep cultural chasm.

And this article in last weekend’s WSJ (which had a picture of Michelle Rhee, among others):

Asian-Americans are now the country's best-educated, highest-earning and fastest-growing racial group. They share with American Jews both the distinction and the occasional burden of immigrant success.

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Friedman Foundation: School Employment Outpaces Enrollment

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice with a new study which found that, since 1950, while the number of students has doubled, the number of teachers is up 252% and the number of non-teaching staff is up 702%!

New Study Finds Public School Employment Far Outpacing K-12 Student Enrollment

$24.3 billion in potential savings could help teachers, kids

INDIANAPOLIS — America’s public schools saw a 96 percent increase in students but increased administrators and other non-teaching staff a staggering 702 percent since 1950, according to a new study of school personnel by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

The report, “The School Staffing Surge: Decades of Employment Growth in America’s Public Schools,” found the seven-fold increase in administrators and other non-teachers in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Teaching staff, in comparison, increased 252 percent.

This trend has continued in recent years as well.

According to the study, virtually all 50 states saw “bloat” or an excessive increase in the size of non-teaching personnel compared to student population. Among the states with the most disproportionate increases were:

·         Hawaii. Student enrollment increased 2.7 percent while administrators and other non-teaching staff increased 68.9 percent from FY 1992 to FY 2009.

·         Ohio. Student enrollment increased 1.9 percent compared to a 44.4 percent increase in administrators and other non-teaching personnel during the same period.

·         Minnesota. Student enrollment increased 8.1 percent compared to an increase in administrators and non-teaching personnel of 68.2 percent.

·         New Hampshire. Student enrollment increased 11.7 percent while administrators and non-teaching personnel increased 80.2 percent.

Some states actually had decreases in student enrollment from FY 1992 to FY 2009, but only Montana reduced the number of non-teaching personnel. Some states had dramatic gains in personnel outside the classroom despite a loss in student population. For example:

·         Maine had a decrease of 10.8 percent in student population yet increased its non-teaching staff by 76.1 percent.

·         South Dakota lost 3.9 percent of its student population yet increased non-teaching staff by 55.4 percent.

·         The District of Columbia lost 14.8 percent of its students yet increased non-teaching staff by 42 percent.

The report was compiled with statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics by Ben Scafidi, an economist at Georgia College & State University and a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation.

“It’s astounding that billions of dollars are wasted on personnel in American public schools who do not produce educational results,” said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. “We need to rethink how we spend our money including whether we would get better student outcomes if we redirected these funds to parents so they could send their child to the school of their choice.”

The study also found that if non-teaching personnel had grown at the same rate as student population, American public schools would have an additional $24.3 billion annually. Scafidi’s report concluded that $24.3 billion is equivalent to an annual $7,500 raise per teacher nationwide or a $1,700 school voucher for each child in poverty.

Despite the increase in personnel, public high school graduation rates peaked around 1970, and data show that reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress fell slightly between 1992 and 2008. Math scores were stagnant during the same period.

To read the full report, go to: www.EdChoice.org/StaffSurge.
For individual state data, see: www.EdChoice.org/StaffSurge/Map.

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Online Collaboration on Ed Reform for New Jersey Teachers

From the New Jersey Charter School Association:

Raising teacher voices in New Jersey:   New Jersey teachers have a unique opportunity to help shape education reform.  All New Jersey teachers are invited to join in an on-line collaboration-- VIVA Idea Exchange-- http://bit.ly/vivanj to talk about school-wide accountability.  You will have the opportunity to connect with fellow teachers across the state and the researchers at the University of Pennsylvania profiled in Paul Tough's new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Power of Character, to give your take on the hot topic of resilience and character development.  Share your ideas about how schools can be deliberate about preparing students to succeed not just in graduating from high school but persisting in college and otherwise becoming self-sufficient adults.  And, help New Jersey create policies that ensure students develop judgement and skills for success.  Join here http://bit.ly/vivanj and make your voice heard.

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Two Stories on Voter Suppression

A friend with two stories re. voter suppression:

Lacking your courage in the face of intense public scrutiny and discord, I usually keep politics to myself.  2 events, however, are consonant with your notes of voter suppression efforts (both are anecdotal yet disturbing):

1) I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chile and am using my Spanish skills to do "Latino voter outreach" for Obama in my home market of south florida. When I ask "are you registered to vote", I've heard repeatedly (maybe a 8 or 10 times) "no - es que nos pueden echar" -- roughly translated "no, they can kick us out (of the country)."

2) The following from an African American college buddy who's now a doctor in North Carolina:

"The Republicans have stopped at nothing - here is what they have done in NC and maybe nationwide:

1. Disseminating confusing info about who can vote
2. Hiring fakes to run voter registration drives and throwing away registrations that weren't Republican (I had this happen to me personally here in NC)
3. Buying questionable non-fully audited voter machines
4. Giving people the wrong dates to go and vote.
And yet their supporters condone/love this type of behavior. You have to question the motives of the people who support this kind of behavior."

What a stain on the integrity of the greatest nation man has constructed.... Keep up your cogent and courageous advocacy!

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Why I'm Voting for Barack Obama Again

I think our democracy is made stronger when as many people as possible speak out and share their political views in a thoughtful way, so in that spirit below is a missive I’ve written on why I’m voting for Obama again (it’s also posted at www.tilsonfunds.com/VotingObamaAgain.pdf).

Please read this first:


It’s a sorry state of affairs when I feel compelled to write this warning before sharing the reasons why I’m voting for Obama again, but the political environment has become very toxic and I’m not interested in receiving angry emails, denunciations, threats, etc. Sadly, I’ve found that it’s almost always fruitless and counterproductive to have a political conversation with those who are on the other side of the spectrum. My experience is that for many people (including myself perhaps) political beliefs are as deeply and emotionally held as religious ones, so political conversations quickly degenerate into what would happen if a Muslim tried to convince a Jew (or vice versa) that his religion was inferior and that he should therefore change – nothing useful comes of it, and there’s a high risk of bad feelings.

Thus, this missive isn’t intended to change anyone’s mind but is instead aimed at the handful of undecided voters who will determine this election, so if you’re one of these people, I hope you’ll read this, and if you know any such people, please forward this to them.

Why I’m Voting for Obama Again

I’m voting for Obama again for three reasons:

1)      I believe that he’s a rational, intelligent, moderate person who was dealt a terrible hand and has played it reasonably well, especially in light of implacable political opposition (if I were to grade him, I’d give him a B+);

2)      Though I think Mitt Romney is also rational and intelligent, I question whether he is moderate. I think his 47% comment, when he thought the cameras were off, reflects his real views, showing that he has little understanding of or sympathy for those less fortunate than him. I fear that he would attempt to dismantle the New Deal and shred what is left of the safety net, with the result that we would become an even more harsh and unequal society.

I also have grave concerns about both the integrity and core beliefs of someone who, depending on which voters he was trying to appeal to, has espoused vastly different views on countless issues: taxes, women’s rights, abortion, the invasion of Iraq, the role of the federal government in education, campaign spending limits, immigration reform, gay rights, global warming, environmental protection, gun control, even whether he wanted to serve in Vietnam… The list goes on and on, to the point where I can’t tell whether the real Romney is the pragmatic centrist who was the governor of Massachusetts (and who showed up in the debates) or the “severe conservative” he played for years as he campaigned for president – or whether there is any real Mitt Romney at all.

I’ve heard assurances from some moderate Republicans that Romney is really one of them – he was just forced to be a right-winger and pander to the Tea Party in order to win the nomination because otherwise he would have suffered the same fate as Jon Huntsman – but this gives me little solace. If they’re right (and I hope they are, though I’m not willing to bet the future of our country on it!), then he’s been a persuasive liar for the past few years (a sheep in wolf’s clothing). If they’re wrong, then he was a persuasive liar for many years when he ran for Senate and served as governor of Massachusetts (a wolf in sheep’s clothing), and our country could soon be led by a right-wing extremist.

Regarding other issues, though I agree with Romney on some (for example, education reform), on most, ranging from how to improve the economy to foreign policy to social issues, I strongly disagree with him (to the extent that I can divine his true views); and

3)      Even if Romney is a pragmatic centrist, I question his ability to act independently of a party that I fear has become beholden to people I view as extremists – anti-intellectuals who are hostile to women, minorities, the poor, immigrants, and gays, and who don’t believe in evolution, diplomacy, protecting the environment, equality for women, global warming, and gun control.

As Tom Friedman correctly noted, “There is no organic connection between Romney and the G.O.P. base…He is renting the party to fulfill his dream of becoming president, and they’re renting him to get rid of President Obama. But this is not Romney’s party. I don’t see him taking it back to his moderate past.”

Now let’s turn to the significant and heartfelt differences between the candidates – and their parties – on nearly every issue. Here is a summary of the topics covered below: Jobs and the Economy; Economic Plan Going Forward; The Deficit, Debt, and the Budget Deal; Tax Reform and the Buffett Rule; Bipartisanship; Income Inequality; Class Warfare; Regulation; Obamacare; The Safety Net; Supreme Court; Women’s Rights; Gay Rights; Education; Gun Control; Energy, Climate Change, and the Environment; Foreign Policy; Israel; and Conclusion.

Jobs and the Economy
Nobody disputes three things:

1)      Things were terrible when Obama took office: major parts of the economy, especially banking, autos, and housing, had collapsed, and the country was on its way to losing more than eight million jobs and the stock market declining more than 50% – both the biggest declines since the Great Depression;

2)      Things are much better now: we’ve had 13 consecutive quarters of GDP growth, 31 consecutive months of job creation, and the S&P 500 has risen 75% since Obama took office. In addition, the unemployment rate has fallen to 7.8%, a 45-month low (down from a peak of 10.1%), consumer confidence is at a five-year high, and the housing market is at a post-crisis high. These charts show GDP growth, monthly job creation, and the stock market since the beginning of 2007:

3)      The recovery that began shortly after Obama took office has been tepid.

The main questions in dispute are: a) Could/should Obama have done more?; and b) Will we be better off going forward with Romney as president?

Regarding the former, I give the Obama administration very good marks for the stimulus package and saving the financial system and auto industry, but only decent marks for addressing the housing crisis. No doubt there’s much to second guess in hindsight – the stimulus money might have been targeted better, I think the big financial institutions and their bondholders got off way too easy, and much more decisive action was needed to address the housing crisis – but I recognize that hindsight is always 20/20 and the patient was in cardiac arrest, so quick action was necessary.

Like every American, I wish the economy were stronger and had created a lot more jobs, but I find it hard to blame Obama for this, as the country was in a very deep hole when he took office. Republicans disagree, showing charts like this one:

But I find this comparison spurious, as it would be like comparing two patients, one who was recovering from the flu and one from a major heart attack. I also find it highly ironic that Republicans blame Obama for the lack of jobs when they have blocked major initiatives by the Obama administration that would have created millions of jobs. (This reflects a general pattern of behavior of trying to undermine Obama at every turn in the hopes of denying him a second term.) Finally, I’ll note that over the past 41 years, since JFK took office in January 1961, in the 23 years that Democrats have occupied the Oval Office, the U.S. economy created an average of 150,000 private sector jobs per month vs. a mere 71,000 under Republican presidents.

The Republican story line is that our tepid recovery is due to the private sector refusing to invest and create jobs because of the Obama administration’s supposed profligate spending, anti-business attitude, and excessive regulations. This data, however, doesn’t support this argument. Rather, the two primary headwinds for this recovery, relative to the ones following the last two recessions, are big cuts in government spending and jobs (mainly at the state and local level) and the weak housing market, as these charts show (click to enlarge):

For a more valid comparison, look around the world – it was a global recession – and ask yourself which major country has done better than we have? Would you trade places, economically, with Germany, France, the UK, Japan, or China? Relative to other countries, we’re doing reasonably well, as this IMF report documents.

Economic Plan Going Forward

There isn’t much bold or visionary in Obama’s economic plan going forward, but I view more of the same as a far better alternative than Romney’s plan, which has three pillars: tax cuts, deregulation, and austerity. Well, we tried the first two under Bush – and look where it got us! As for adopting severe austerity measures in the hopes of reining in our huge deficits, we don’t have to speculate on the consequences because major countries around the world have tried this plan and the actual, real-world results are providing strong evidence that such a course of action, while the economy is still weak, would not only likely cause another recession and enormous human suffering, but would actually make the debt/deficit problem worse by choking off growth.

It’s also noteworthy that Massachusetts ranked 47th out of 50 states in job creation while Romney was governor. This is the guy who’s going to fire up our economy and magically create millions of new jobs???

In summary, I thought Bill Clinton summarized it best in his speech at the Democratic National Convention:

In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president’s re-election was actually pretty simple — pretty snappy. It went something like this: We left him a total mess. He hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough. So fire him and put us back in.

(Incidentally, I thought Clinton made the best case for Obama I’ve heard – click here to watch it and here to read the transcript.)

The Deficit, Debt, and the Budget Deal
“Ah,” Republicans say, “but more of the same under Obama will bankrupt us, as we’re running big deficits and he doesn’t care about this and just wants the government to become bigger and bigger.” My response (channeling my inner Joe Biden): malarkey!

Obama inherited a budget that had ballooned thanks primarily to the economic collapse (and, to a lesser extent, the spending policies of Congress and his predecessor), but since then the growth of federal spending under Obama has been lower than that of any president since Eisenhower, as this chart shows:

So, yes, both federal outlays and the deficit, as a percentage of GDP, are very high, but Obama didn’t create this – he inherited it. The real question, therefore, is which candidate would be more likely to reduce our deficits?

I continue to be puzzled by people (like me) who are gravely concerned about this issue, yet who are supporting Romney in spite of his vague budget plan that promises to make matters much worse: he’s not only promised $5 trillion of tax cuts but also wants to spend another $2 trillion on the military (which the military isn’t even asking for!), yet refuses to offer any specifics on what he would cut to offset this. I think this is disingenuous, reckless, and irresponsible.

Congress, of course, would likely pass the tax cuts and extra spending under Romney – that’s politically easy – but it’s unrealistic to think that Congress (especially given that Democrats are more than 90% likely to retain control of the Senate) will make the savage cuts to entitlements and sacred cows like the home mortgage and charitable deductions and waiving taxes on home sales and employer health insurance that would be necessary to offset Romney’s big cuts.

Obama, in contrast, has embraced a grand bargain along the lines of Simpson-Bowles that would include $2.50 of entitlement cuts for every dollar of tax increases (focused mainly on the wealthiest Americans). Most sensible Republicans agree with this broad outline for a deal, but nearly all Republicans in Congress have instead signed Grover Norquist’s insane pledge of no tax increases under any circumstances, which is the primary obstacle to a budget deal.

To get such a deal done, hundreds of members of Congress are going to have to show serious political courage and agree to very difficult compromises, but what Democrat would agree to vote for painful spending cuts that hit Democratic constituencies particularly hard unless the Republicans agree to tax increases on the wealthy? While it’s true that such tax increases, by themselves, won’t raise enough revenue – millions of people, not just the wealthy, will have to pay at least somewhat more in taxes – the political reality is that the wealthiest people have to go first for any deal to get done.

The other key ingredient of a deal is tackling the soaring costs of entitlements, which is extremely difficult politically for any Democrat. Realistically, to get enough Democrats in Congress to support a deal that truly reforms entitlements, there will need political cover from a Democratic president who has the courage to do a Nixon-to-China moment. A fair criticism of Obama is that he didn’t provide this cover during the budget negotiations in the summer of 2011, when a grand bargain seemed tantalizingly close (Republicans are also to blame, as Boehner couldn’t deliver his right wing), but I think Obama will be able to do so once he no longer has to run for office ever again. This is key for two reasons: first, I think it will let Obama be much more courageous in many areas such as the budget, immigration, and gun control; and secondly, it might lead Republicans to be less obstructionist (it would certainly be in their political self-interest to do so).

Thus, if you really care about the unsustainable deficits we’re running and want a president under whom there’s the greatest chance of a grand bargain budget deal, you should be supporting Obama, not Romney. He’s been much more realistic and pragmatic on this issue and, as a second-term president, will be able to make the tough compromises necessary to get a deal done.

Tax Reform and the Buffett Rule

A key part of any budget deal will be reforming our personal and corporate tax code, which is riddled with outrageous loopholes that favor the richest and best-connected industries, companies, and individuals (myself and my fellow money managers included!). One small part of the overall tax reform – and a critical component of any grand bargain on the budget – is making sure that all of the wealthiest individuals pay a federal tax at least equal to an average working person – the so-called Buffett Rule, which Obama supports and Romney opposes. I wrote an op ed in the Washington Post about this (click here) and posted further details and a Q&A here.

But what about the claims of Republicans who say that a country can never tax its way to prosperity and that raising taxes, especially on so-called “job creators,” will hurt our economic recovery? It’s a convenient and self-serving argument, but there’s little evidence to support it. In fact, as this article notes:

…the whole history of the last 20 years offers one of the most serious challenges to modern conservatism. Bill Clinton and the elder George Bush both raised taxes in the early 1990s, and conservatives predicted disaster. Instead, the economy boomed, and incomes grew at their fastest pace since the 1960s. Then came the younger Mr. Bush, the tax cuts, the disappointing expansion and the worst downturn since the Depression.

Today, Mitt Romney and Mr. Ryan are promising another cut in tax rates and again predicting that good times will follow. But it’s not the easiest case to make. Much as President Obama should be asked to grapple with the economy’s disappointing recent performance (a subject for a planned column), Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan would do voters a service by explaining why a cut in tax rates would work better this time than last time.


There’s a raging debate over who’s to blame for the toxic political climate and the total inability of the two parties to work together to address the critical issues our country faces. No doubt both sides share plenty of blame, but I want to address the myth that Romney was a model of bipartisanship when he was governor of Massachusetts, where he faced a legislature that was 87% Democrats. According to this article:

…on closer examination, the record as governor he alluded to looks considerably less burnished than Mr. Romney suggested. Bipartisanship was in short supply; Statehouse Democrats complained he variously ignored, insulted or opposed them, with intermittent charm offensives. He vetoed scores of legislative initiatives and excised budget line items a remarkable 844 times, according to the nonpartisan research group Factcheck.org. Lawmakers reciprocated by quickly overriding the vast bulk of them.
…in contrast to his statements in the debate, many say, Mr. Romney neither mastered the art of reaching across the aisle nor achieved unusual success as governor. To the contrary, they say, his relations with Democrats could be acrimonious, and his ability to get big things done could be just as shackled as is President Obama’s ability to push his agenda through a hostile House of Representatives.

Income Inequality

The U.S. has the greatest income inequality it’s had since just before the Great Depression: the top 1% (which includes me) earn nearly 20% of all income, control about 33% of all wealth, and captured 93% of the income growth in 2010 (37% went to the top one-hundredth of 1%). Even worse, contrary to the belief that America is the land of opportunity for all, we have the least equality of opportunity among all developed countries. The majority of Americans have made no economic progress for well over a decade, and the median income of a full-time male worker is lower than it was four decades ago.

This is not only a huge moral issue and one that threatens the future social and political stability of our country, but there’s increasing evidence that it’s an economic one as well, as this article highlights:

But economists’ thinking has changed sharply in recent years. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development this year warned about the “negative consequences” of the country’s high levels of pay inequality, and suggested an aggressive series of changes to tax and spending programs to tackle it.
The I.M.F. has cautioned the United States, too. “Some dismiss inequality and focus instead on overall growth — arguing, in effect, that a rising tide lifts all boats,” a commentary by fund economists said. “When a handful of yachts become ocean liners while the rest remain lowly canoes, something is seriously amiss.”
The concentration of income in the hands of the rich might not just mean a more unequal society, economists believe. It might mean less stable economic expansions and sluggish growth.
That is the conclusion drawn by two economists at the fund, Mr. Ostry and Andrew G. Berg. They found that in rich countries and poor, inequality strongly correlated with shorter spells of economic expansion and thus less growth over time.
And inequality seems to have a stronger effect on growth than several other factors, including foreign investment, trade openness, exchange rate competitiveness and the strength of political institutions.

Obama cares about this terrible problem and his policies will help ameliorate it, while I think the opposite is true for Romney and the Republican party.

Class Warfare

The charge the Obama has been fomenting class warfare has been repeated so often that it’s taken as dogma by many, but I’m not buying it. Pointing out rising income inequality and its pernicious consequences isn’t class warfare in my book, nor is highlighting absurdities in the tax code that result in many of the wealthiest people paying much lower tax rates than average Americans. In fact, the federal tax rate of the 400 highest-income Americans has been nearly cut in half since 1995 to below 17%, at the same time that their wealth quadrupled! Nor is it class warfare to point out that a lot of people made a lot of money in ways that contributed to the Great Bubble, which led to the Great Recession, but it was middle- and low-income people who suffered the most and who have benefitted the least in the recovery.

Obama, like virtually all Americans, regardless of political persuasion, celebrates people who work hard, build successful careers/businesses, and consequently do well for themselves – but when our government is running big deficits and needs to raise revenues (in addition to cutting spending), he’s simply saying that those who are most able to pay more in taxes should be the ones to do so. This is common sense, simple math, and basic fairness.

Meanwhile, Republicans have shown that they are willing to fight to the death – to the point of being willing to have the U.S. default on its debts – to prevent the taxes of even the wealthiest Americans from going up by even a penny. Yet at the same time they want to force even the poorest Americans to pay federal income taxes (in addition to payroll, sales, and other taxes the poor already pay). And they accuse Obama of engaging in class warfare?!


Another oft-repeated myth is that it’s becoming increasingly hard to do business in the U.S. due to an anti-business climate and excessive regulation introduced by the Obama administration. In fact, the U.S. remains the 4th best country in the world in terms of ease of doing business according to the World Bank (unchanged under Obama), and the Obama administration has implemented fewer regulations than the Bush administration did in its first term.

I’m a strong believer in firm, prudent regulation, which saves lives (see this story about grain silo accidents and this one about the deadly fungal meningitis outbreak), protects the environment, and prevents bubbles. If there was one lesson from the Great Bubble – in fact, all financial bubbles – it’s that the financial sector needs to be closely regulated, as Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz argues:

…anyone with a sense of history would realize that capitalism has been plagued with booms and busts since its origin. The only period in our history in which financial markets did not suffer from excesses was the period after the Great Depression, in which we put in place strong regulations that worked. It’s worth noting that we grew much faster, and more stably, in the decades after World War II than in the period after 1980, when we started stripping away the regulations. And in the former period we grew together, in contrast to the latter, when we grew apart.


This is Obama’s signature achievement of his first term, and I’m delighted that we’re on a path to providing – as all other developed countries do – basic healthcare to all Americans, rather than continuing to leave 45 million of our fellow citizens in the lurch without coverage. Here’s a summary of the law’s benefits:

·         Allowing children under 26 to stay on their parents’ policies
·         Lower drug costs for people on Medicare who are heavy users of prescription drugs
·         Free immunizations, mammograms and contraceptives
·         A ban on lifetime limits on insurance payments
·         Insurance companies cannot deny coverage to children with pre-existing conditions
·         Starting in 2014, insurers must accept all applicants
·         Once fully in effect, the new law would start to control health care costs

Obamacare encourages a wide range of pilot programs, and the Obama administration plans to vigorously encourage the best of them (along with current known best practices).

Romney claims that he’s going to keep the good parts of Obamacare and eliminate the bad, but I don’t buy it. In reality, his plan would likely leave 45 million of our fellow citizens uninsured and relying on emergency rooms, would shift more Medicare costs to beneficiaries via voucher programs, and shift more Medicaid costs to the states via block grants.

The Safety Net

In addition to healthcare, I think the government should provide a basic safety net for the millions of Americans who fall on hard times: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, foods stamps, jobless benefits, etc. Reasonable people can disagree about the extent of the safety net, how long it should be provided for, how to mitigate issues of dependency, etc., but the Republican party isn’t engaging in this discussion – it just wants to shred the safety net. I don’t want my country to be a place in which millions of people lead Hobbesian lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Supreme Court

I’m very concerned about conservative activism by the Supreme Court, which has led to such terrible decisions as Citizens United. Obama has appointed two excellent justices, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, while Romney’s campaign web site says he will “nominate judges in the mold of Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito.” Egads!

Women’s Rights

I have three daughters and want them to have full equality, including the right to sue if they’re discriminated against in terms of pay (Obama supported the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, while Republicans opposed it). In terms of health-related issues, I think women should have full access to and insurance coverage for contraception (remember Sandra Fluke and Republican attacks on Planned Parenthood, to which Romney said he will deny federal funding?) and have the right to a safe abortion, which the Republican party opposes in all cases, including rape, incest, or the mother’s life being at risk.

Gay Rights

I yearn for the day when people are no longer scorned and discriminated against because they love someone of their own gender. Obama ended the military’s policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and recently went public with his support for gay marriage, which has helped spur the marriage-equality movement around the country. In addition, the Justice Department has stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act against constitutional challenges. In contrast:

Mr. Romney opposes same-sex marriage and supports the federal [Defense of Marriage] act, which not only denies federal benefits and recognition to same-sex couples but allows states to ignore marriages made in other states. His campaign declared that Mr. Romney would not object if states also banned adoption by same-sex couples and restricted their rights to hospital visitation and other privileges.


This is the area of greatest agreement between the candidates. Obama has been very courageous in pushing reform via Race to the Top, etc., to the point where I think he’s already done Nixon-to-China in this area. Romney would continue most of the same policies, but would likely be less effective because the main political obstacles to reform are in the Democratic party, so it’s much more impactful to have a Democratic president leading the charge.

Gun Control

Every year more than 30,000 people are killed by guns, our homicide rate is 6.9x higher than the average of other developed countries, and there have been 43 mass shootings in the past year. How many more massacres of innocent citizens are we going to endure before adopting sensible gun control laws???

I don’t quarrel with the right of law-abiding citizens to own guns, but isn’t it just common sense that there should first be a background check to weed out those who are on the terrorist watch list (I kid you not – they can legally buy guns!), are mentally ill, have a violent past, etc. And is it really a good idea to allow concealed handguns in bars? And surely it’s sensible to ban high-capacity magazines, which have been used in virtually all mass shootings. Legitimate self-defense doesn’t require a 100-round magazine!

Obama favors sensible gun control laws but, clearly wary of losing the votes of gun owners in swing states, hasn’t pushed this issue at all, though I think this is likely to change in his second term. Romney was actually strongly in favor of gun control when he ran for Senate and served as governor of Massachusetts – he once said assault weapons were “instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people” – but of course he’s completely abandoned those views and there’s no reason to believe that, as president, he’d do anything but toe the NRA line.

Energy, Climate Change, and the Environment

Obama has been a sensible environmentalist, though this hasn’t hurt the oil and gas industries: domestic oil and natural gas production has increased every year of his administration (in 2011, American oil production reached the highest level in nearly a decade and natural gas production reached an all-time high), and oil imports as share of U.S. consumption decreased from 57% in 2008 to 45% in 2011.

Romney was once a sensible environmentalist as well. As governor of Massachusetts:

He pushed to make homes and businesses more energy efficient. He offered government incentives for renewable power and, early in his administration, tried to tackle climate change with fees on excessive corporate emitters of greenhouse gases.

But, as with so many other issues, candidate Romney has very different views. He:

·         Called the Environmental Protection Agency “a tool in the hands of the president to crush the private enterprise system.”
·         Seeks to eliminate the EPA’s power to regulate carbon dioxide and remove its rules limiting emissions from coal plants, saying “I exhale carbon dioxide. I don’t want those guys following me around with a meter to see if I’m breathing too hard.”
·         Argues there’s a lack of scientific consensus on climate change.
·         Opposes “any and all cap-and-trade legislation.”
·         Favors giving states the ability to regulate drilling and issue leases (even on federal land).
·         Supports opening all federal land for oil and gas drilling, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Pacific, Atlantic and Alaskan coasts.
·         Opposes the renewal of the wind tax credit.
·         Criticizes Obama’s stimulus bill funding for solar, wind and electric vehicle companies.
·         Opposes Obama's vehicle efficiency mandate.

Foreign Policy

Given that he had little foreign policy experience, opposed the Iraq war, and won the Nobel Peace Prize, there was concern that Obama would be another naïve, Jimmy Carter-like wimp when it came to foreign affairs. He’s been anything but – he finally got Osama bin Laden, dramatically increased the number of drone attacks, intervened in Libya to prevent a genocide and remove Gaddafi, and implemented tough multilateral sanctions on Iran. And thankfully Obama pulled us out of Iraq and we’re on our way out of Afghanistan.

As in so many other areas, I can’t figure out what Romney would do as president. After fiercely criticizing nearly every aspect of Obama’s foreign policy for years, the Romney who showed up in the third debate endorsed just about everything Obama has done and is doing (see Jon Stewart’s hilarious video montage demonstrating this). Unfortunately, I think the real Romney is the hawkish neocon, as evidenced by the fact that 17 of Romney’s 24 special advisors on foreign policy served in the Bush-Chaney administration. Do we really want to wind back the clock and turn our foreign policy over to people who are skeptical of diplomacy, fail to appreciate soft power, and engage in arrogant saber-rattling?


As for Israel, my favorite line of all three debates was Obama saying: “When I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn’t take donors, I didn’t attend fundraisers. I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself – the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.”

I applaud Obama for standing up to Netanyahu on settlements and insisting on implementing tough sanctions on Iran and giving them a chance to work before launching a premature attack. The last thing we need is another war in the Middle East (keep in mind that Iran has more than double the population and is nearly four times the size of Iraq).

Some have confused Obama’s actions with not being a friend to Israel, but nothing could be further from the truth. As John Heilmann correctly notes:

In attempting to apply tough love to Israel, Obama is trying to make a stalwart ally see that undertaking the painful and risky compromises necessary for peace with the Palestinians is the only way to preserve the Zionist dream—which is to say a future as a state both Jewish and democratic. His role here is not that of the callous assailant but of the caring and sober brother slapping his drunken sibling: The point is not to hurt the guy but to get him to sober up.

…The premise of Obama’s approach to Israel all along has been straightforward. Given the demographic realities it faces—the growth of the Palestinian population in the territories and also of the Arab population in Israel itself—our ally confronts a fundamental and fateful choice: It can remain democratic and lose its Jewish character; it can retain its Jewish character but become an apartheid state; or it can remain both Jewish and democratic, satisfy Palestinian national aspirations, facilitate efforts to contain Iran, alleviate the international opprobrium directed at it, and reap the enormous security and economic benefits of ending the conflict by taking up the task of the creation of a viable Palestinian state—one based, yes, on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed upon land swaps, with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.

The irony is that Obama—along with countless Israelis, members of the Jewish diaspora, and friends of Israel around the world—seems to grasp these realities and this choice more readily than Netanyahu does.

In summary, I’ll let Israel’s current President, Shimon Peres, and Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, have the last word: “Obama is the best president for Israel ever.”


In virtually every area – the economy, jobs, social issues, foreign affairs, etc. – I think Obama has done well in his first term (and am optimistic that he’ll be even better in his second term), and going forward I believe Obama and the Democrats have a more clearly defined, realistic, better plan for our country than Romney and the Republicans.

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