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Slick politics

President Obama's response to the Gulf oil spill threatens more harm than good

Spencer Platt/Getty Images


Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On the night President Barack Obama clinched the Democratic Party's nomination for the presidency, the candidate said his supporters would remember the June evening as "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

Barely two years later, the president sat soberly behind his desk in the Oval Office on a recent June evening, trying to respond to a spiraling crisis in a troubled ocean that may take years to heal.

The president on June 15 used his first Oval Office address to offer what he called "a battle plan" to fight the BP oil spill that has been gushing an estimated 60,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico each day. But the president's plan-with little power to stop a massive spill that even round-the-clock BP engineers can't manage-instead puts forth long-term policies that may do more harm than good.

The president's first step: a moratorium on deepwater drilling. An Obama administration report claimed that seven scientists from the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) had reviewed the recommendation to temporarily ban deepwater drilling in a region already suffering from a tanking seafood industry.

The scientists said that wasn't true. In a letter to lawmakers, they said they reviewed the plan before administration officials added the moratorium, and that they don't approve of the ban: "It will not measurably reduce risk further and it will have a lasting impact on the nation's economy which may be greater than that of the spill."

Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, said the ban could impact some 330,000 jobs in Louisiana alone-nearly 13.4 percent of the state's work force. The state's Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, pleaded with the president to reverse the ban: "The last thing we need is to enact public policies that will certainly destroy thousands of existing jobs while preventing the creation of thousands more."

The president's second step: Set up an independent fund to handle Gulf Coast residents' claims against BP. Obama said an independent entity would ensure that BP fairly reimburses residents for lost wages and other damages. BP agreed to the request, though many legal experts said the president didn't have the authority to demand such an entity. And they say a problem remains: Such an entity could become beholden to the administration and take far longer to process claims.

The president's third step: climate change legislation that makes even some Democrats wary. In his Oval Office speech, Obama avoided controversial cap-and-trade language but hailed energy legislation that the House passed last year. That bill included a cap-and-trade program that would raise energy costs for individuals and businesses.

Though a cap-and-trade provision remains in a proposed Senate bill, Democrats may remove the program to attempt passage of an energy bill this year. Senators still could add the provision later as an amendment.

But some Democratic senators questioned linking climate change legislation with the Gulf Coast spill. "The climate bill isn't going to stop the oil leak," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told the Bloomberg news service. "The first thing you have to do is stop the oil leak." Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., agreed: "That doesn't have much to do with the Gulf."

Down in the Gulf, local officials continued to express frustration with cleanup efforts, decrying poor coordination between BP workers and thousands of federal employees. Even local efforts seemed thwarted: When Alabama officials ordered protective boom from the Persian Gulf to keep oil from coming into the vulnerable Perdido Bay, Coast Guard officials took the boom and gave it to Louisiana. After a heated meeting that included Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and President Obama, the Coast Guard said it would make up the loss. By then, it was too late: Oil had breached the bay.

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'The hungry season'

Aid groups rush to respond as Niger suffers through a summer food crisis

SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images


SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

A World Vision video shows a 2-year-old baby who has never talked and whose skeletal legs can no longer support her weight. She weighs just 12 pounds. A 17-month-old baby can no longer crawl and has never walked. When asked if they had enough food, the baby's grandmother laughed and said, "There's never enough food."

This is Niger before its current food crisis. The World Food Programme has called for $125 million to feed Niger, estimating that half of the population (7.1 million) is at risk for hunger due to last year's drought-decimated harvest. According to a World Vision assessment in March, about 74,400 children in Niger will be malnourished and about 1,042 will develop medical complications as a result.

Niger experienced a similar crisis in 1973, 1983, and 2005. Some 82 percent of the population relies on agriculture, so when droughts or floods obliterate the harvest, the country goes hungry. In 2005 it was locusts. This year, the cereal harvest yielded 31 percent less than in 2008. Asma Lateef, director of Bread for the World Institute, said hunger gnaws the nation almost annually. The harvest season is short and the people live off their harvest for as long as it lasts, then go into "the hungry season" around May or June.

The problem spans West-Central Africa, as the sun beats down and rain is late or erratic. The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 10 million people in the Sahel region of West-Central Africa will risk going hungry. It is bolstering efforts in four countries: helping 700,000 in Chad; 339,000 in Cameroon; 258,000 people in Mali; and 2.3 million in Niger.

And WFP is only focusing on the "worst affected areas" in Niger. Mark Green, deputy director for Barnabas Aid International, said Christians are often most vulnerable, as a minority population that lacks an extensive network. Christians make up just 0.3 percent of the population in Niger and usually live in remote areas.

"Big aid agencies are obviously looking at the big picture," said Green. These agencies work with local and national authorities, who sometimes neglect minority populations, Green said: "The minorities are really going to be at the end of the queue." Barnabas Aid was already supporting 312 Christian families in Niger before the recent crisis. Now they are trying to expand that help to include 1,122 more Christian families.

The good news is that aid efforts need to carry Niger through for just a few months, until harvest time. Politicians in affluent countries continue to make pledges-those at the G8 Summit of 2009 pledged to invest $20 billion in rural development for the world's poorest countries-but past governmental efforts do not inspire confidence.

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Gangs of Jamaica

MARK BROWN/EPA/Landov


MARK BROWN/EPA/Landov

Jamaica remained under a state of emergency after three days of clashes between drug lords and local authorities in the infamous West Kingston slum killed 73 civilians and three security officers in May. Prime Minister Bruce Golding said the government would launch an assault on other gangs controlling poor communities in the Caribbean nation with one of the highest murder rates in the world.

The West Kingston clashes began with a search for accused drug lord Christopher Coke after U.S. authorities requested the notorious criminal's extradition. The prime minister had resisted that request for months, and many leaders in the opposition party accused Golding of sheltering the drug lord because he enjoyed political support from Coke's allies. Golding admitted he hired a Miami-based law firm to lobby against Coke's extradition in the United States. Golding apologized, and parliament voted not to censure him. Coke remains at large.

Oil and water

In the battle to preserve imperiled Gulf Coast waters and shorelines, a low-key conservative has emerged as a relentless crusader: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. The mild-mannered Republican has spent weeks slogging through the state's marshes and flying over the site of the worst oil spill in U.S. history, decrying the response from both BP and the federal government.

Jindal says the two entities poorly coordinated clean-up efforts while the busted well continued to spew at least a half million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico each day. Jindal is trying to fill in the gaps, organizing additional coastal patrols and ordering state workers to build shore barriers.

By early June, federal officials had closed more than 31 percent of federal waters in the region to fishing while BP stumbled through a series of failed efforts to stop the gushing oil. The closures have paralyzed some fishermen in the region dependent on the seafood industry: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported nearly 5.7 million recreational fishermen led some 25 million fishing trips in the Gulf of Mexico in 2008. Commercial fishermen in the region harvested 1 billion pounds of fish and shellfish during the same year.

No good option

The UN Human Rights Council, with a membership including China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia, was one of many international groups early in June that condemned Israel for preventing a flotilla from breaking the small country's blockade of the Gaza Strip. Flotilla leaders had announced beforehand their intentions to test the blockade, which is designed to keep Hamas from accumulating more missiles and other weapons.

Nine activists died in the battle that broke out when Israel maintained the blockade. Muslim nations including once-sympathetic Turkey denounced the country that many Muslims say has no right to exist. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "Hamas continues to arm. Iran continues to send weapons to Gaza. Iran's rockets are intended to hit Israeli communities. . . . If the blockade had been broken, hundreds of ships would have followed."

The Israelis once again have no good option. Netanyahu is right to say that an end to the blockade would mean "an Iranian port in Gaza, only a few dozen kilometers from Tel Aviv." But Egypt has now threatened the entire blockade by opening up its own border with Gaza, and anti-Israel militants are seizing on perceptions of the incident to bolster recruiting and fundraising.

Out of Islam

A controversial bus ad asks ex-Muslims if they're in danger: "Leaving Islam? Fatwa on your head? Is your family or community threatening you?" The ads-from an organization called Stop Islamization of America (SIOA)-appear in Miami and New York City buses. The ad mimics the pastoral background of a pro-Islam ad that appeared on Miami buses, even asking the same question the pro-Islam ad does: "Got questions? Get answers." The Council for American-Islamic Relations has decried the ads. Detroit and Miami transit authorities both refused to run the ads, although Miami reinstated them after SIOA threatened a lawsuit.

Fred Farrokh, former Muslim and executive director of the Jesus for Muslims Network in New York City, said that the Quran does preach that faithful Muslims should kill apostates. It's important, he said, to ask Muslim leaders "to either validate or deny this law of apostasy in Islam." Jesus for Muslims owns a safe house where endangered ex-Muslims can take refuge. Most of the time, it shelters people who are victims of persecution in Muslim countries, but occasionally it houses converts whose families have threatened to kill them.

Informed consent?

With the June 28 start date for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's confirmation hearing just weeks away, Senate lawmakers are on a paper chase. Kagan, 50, has never been a judge. Her lack of rulings translates into a thin paper trail that has both sides of the political divide grasping at what kind of justice Kagan could become. Republicans are pressing for the quick release of more than 160,000 pages of documents from the William J. Clinton Presidential Library that may offer clues to Kagan's tenure as a lawyer in the Clinton White House.

But is three weeks enough? Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, already is warning that, given Kagan's thin record, a "train wreck" may occur if hearings are conducted before lawmakers have time to review the documents: "Since this is by far the most significant public record that the nominee has . . . I believe that the hearings should not be conducted until we've had an opportunity to examine the documents in advance." But Clinton library officials are warning that it will be difficult to produce all the material before June 28.

Ticket trough

The summer movie season began with a thud, as Hollywood registered its worst Memorial Day weekend in terms of movie attendance in 17 years. Overall, movie theaters sold 24.2 million tickets, the lowest figure for the four-day Memorial Day weekend since 1993. A weaker-than-expected showing for Sex and the City 2 was part of the problem. Box-office analysts had thought the film would debut at No. 1, but instead it finished third at the box office with a $36.8 million take. Shrek Forever After, in its second week, led at the box office, with Prince of Persia finishing second.

Analyst Paul Dergarabedian told the Associated Press that the entire selection of films was weak: "When you have a Memorial Day weekend down this much, it just tells me the movies in the marketplace are just not grabbing people the way they have in past years." Last year, theaters sold 30.1 million tickets during the holiday weekend. Memorial Day weekend ticket sales hit a high of 39.6 million in 2004.

Control freaks

If officials at Planned Parenthood have their way, the federal government would mandate free birth control in many healthcare plans under the new healthcare law passed this year. The group is launching a campaign to add birth control to the list of free "preventative services" included in some insurance plans under the Affordable Health Care Act. Other groups-like the Center for Reproductive Rights-are considering whether to press for free coverage of so-called "emergency contraception," according to Politico. Officials with the federal Health Resources and Services Administration are still deciding what services to include on the list.

Box battle

Black boxes in the cockpit have long been the norm, but are you ready for a black box in your car'? A House committee on May 26 voted to mandate such crash recording devices on all cars. Rep. Harry Waxman, D-Calif., said the requirement, if it becomes law, would "push the auto industry to make safer cars." But some Republicans countered that the mandate would violate the privacy of drivers and drive up costs, as manufacturers would pass on the expense to buyers.

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