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America has met the enemy, and it is Washington.

That was the message from a focus group of 11 Cincinnati-area voters, who issued a scathing and impassioned indictment Wednesday of Washington, D.C., and everyone in it — from lawmakers to the president and, most strikingly, a political system that makes them feel powerless to change it.

“They’re indicting the president, they’re indicting Congress,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted the two-hour session exclusively for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, in conjunction with NBC News and The Wall Street Journal.

“It is a sense that the system doesn’t work, and they don’t have an answer, but they know what they hate.”

These voters — who described themselves as independents who tend to lean one way or another — assailed the distrust, gridlock, weak leadership and callousness from a government they said seemed indifferent to solving problems. And, they added, they felt “helpless” to punish the lawmakers responsible.

“We have a political class now,” said Jerry Laub, a 54-year-old casino card dealer who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. “They’re above us.”

Obama ‘took it right on the chin’

obama chin

President Barack Obama was hardly spared from their frustration.

“The president took it right on the chin,” said Hart, the pollster. “Essentially, they don’t dislike him personally, they just feel like he’s failed them.”

None of the eight voters who supported Obama in 2012, nor the three who voted for Mitt Romney, described themselves as “proud” or “satisfied” with the president, opting instead for “mixed” or “disappointed.”

“He’s a big disappointment,” said Brandi Nixon, 34, an African-American nurse assistant who voted for Obama in the last election. “He just lost focus. He lost focus on his goals. … He stopped focusing on creating more jobs and fixing the economy.”

“It’s like the economy’s just sitting still,” she added.

Words used to describe the president, even by those who voted for him last year, included “inexperienced,” “powerless,” “cautious,” “timid” and “overwhelmed.”

Participants described a man buffeted by the events around him rather than a leader shaping the future of the country.

“This job is harder than he thought it was going to be,” said Beatrice Hodovanic, 57, a registered nurse who describes herself as a independent and leans towards the Democratic Party.

Much of their discontent stemmed from the poor rollout of the Affordable Care Act, which a majority cited as the biggest failure of Obama’s presidency.

Still, most participants said it was possible that the law could ultimately be fixed.

“As it stands right now, it’s not going to work,” said Terry Hartley, 63, a retired Romney voter who said Obama had “botched” the rollout of the law. “But with changes in the law and adjustments, I think there’s a possibility.”

‘It’s like they didn’t care’

For all the disappointment and frustration directed toward the president by the focus group, lawmakers in Congress received even more unvarnished anger, particularly regarding the government shutdown in October.

Again and again, these voters pleaded for both parties to “work together” and relate to their constituents rather than indulge in bickering and, as one put it, “all those steak dinners.”

If members of Congress spent some time in his shoes, said Hartley, “I would hope that they would care more about the people they represent.”

“That’s what upset me so much about the shutdown,” he added. “It’s like they didn’t care.”

The funding showdown wasn’t just problematic because of the closure of national parks and the missed paychecks to federal workers, participants added. Simply put, it made America look like a “laughingstock” around the world, said Leesa Carr, a 57-year-old special education assistant, who added that the Affordable Care Act rollout and the public education system were also “embarrassing” problems for the nation’s stature worldwide.

Obama wasn’t absolved of guilt for the impasse that shuttered the federal government’s doors for 16 days; five participants gave him a grade of “D” or “F” for his handling of the shutdown.

“I think they were selfish,” Brigid Brennan, a 51-year-old Obama voter, said of Washington politicians. “It’s sad that we can’t discuss things and come to a conclusion.”

No way out

Asked how to fix Washington’s woes, however, members of the focus group said they feel “helpless” to change a system that seems to pit career politicians against each other, cycle after cycle.

“The public has figured out what’s wrong,” says Hart. “They can’t figure out how to fix it.”

Congressional term limits could help, some suggested, but other ideas to radically change the structure of Washington all seemed unfeasible.

When Hart proposed a hypothetical situation in which a “Broom Coalition” from both parties ran on a platform of sweeping out all incumbents, all but two said they wouldn’t support such candidates, fearing that the newcomers would be too inexperienced for policy-making. A proposal to support a third party also received a mixed response.

Asked by NBC’s Chuck Todd how they hoped to punish Washington, participants agreed that they feel “helpless.”

“That’s probably the anger and the frustration,” said Jeff Brown, a 45-year-old scientist who leans Republican. “It’s not easy to do that.”

A silver lining

While the participants struck a sour note on the health care rollout, the job market, and the gridlock in Washington, they also exhibited a spark of hope that the economy — and, in fact, Obama’s presidency — could take a positive turn.

Just two participants — one Obama voter and one Romney supporter — said that the current difficulties for Obama were a decisive “fork in the road” toward a permanent decline in his popularity, rather than just a “bump” that he may overcome.

Most said the housing market and the job situation in Cincinnati had markedly improved in past years, and several cited robust gains on Wall Street as an indication that the economy is on the upswing.

“I think, eventually, he’s going to recover,” Nixon, the nurse assistant, said of Obama.

“It all depends on the Affordable Care Act,” added Michael Ponti-zins, a 24-year-old health care data analyst. “That’s his whole legacy.”

Despite recent high-profile news coverage of U.S. concerns about Syria, Iran and elsewhere, foreign policy was barely mentioned by members of this focus group, who said international relations have rightfully taken a back seat to domestic problems. A majority gave him high marks on his handling of the Syria issue.

“We have enough problems of our own,” said Brennan. “Maybe that’s what’s important right now: to work on some of those things.”

Looking ahead to 2016

In this crucial presidential swing state, one pol who may campaign here in 2016 was perceived by the group as strong and purposeful — the very qualities that seem to be eluding Obama now.

Voters described former secretary of state and potential 2016 candidate Hillary Clinton as “strong,” “vivacious,” “powerful,” “a great head of state” and “smart.”

All of the women in the group praised her sense of purpose, although the three Romney voters said they found her “distrustful.”

“I think she’s very politically ambitious and will say or do whatever she needs to,” said Brown.

Receiving a surprisingly lukewarm response was Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. The focus group, while far from politically disengaged, had few strong opinions about the famously outspoken Republican who is frequently cited as a possible White House contender.

“Chris Christie was a non-personality,” said Hart.  ”We talk about him as being big and omnipresent; he was small and insignificant.”

Participants had more well-developed takes on Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., as 2016 contenders, although both elicited mixed reactions.

The most striking positive remarks about any public figure — even those most critical of the White House — were for Michelle Obama. The first lady was lauded as “energetic,”  ”strong” and “a role model.”

Asked which of a list of political figures they’d like to have as a next-door neighbor, six participants — a majority — cast their vote for the first lady. None chose her husband.


President Obama will nominate Janet L. Yellen to be the next head of the Federal Reserve, the White House said Tuesday. The historic appointment, if confirmed, would make the former UC Berkeley economist the first woman to lead the world’s most powerful central bank.
Yellen, the Fed’s vice chair, would replace Ben S. Bernanke, whose second four-year term as chairman expires Jan. 31. She would take over at a crucial time — the central bank is gearing up to reduce its unprecedented support for the economy without damaging the fragile recovery.

Obama will announce the nomination at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, joined by Yellen and Bernanke.

The Fed’s leadership and policy signals are being closely watched around the globe, especially in developing economies where many fear a too-rapid or poorly communicated pullback of stimulus would have severe consequences for global financial markets and the flow of capital.

The nomination was expected and culminates an unprecedented public campaign that included letters from congressional groups and extensive lobbying by economists and others in and out of Washington.
In naming Yellen, 67, a veteran central banker with a reputation as a consensus builder, Obama opted for consistency and a candidate favored by many economists and liberal Democrats. The president’s top choice, former Treasury secretary Lawrence H. Summers, withdrew from the running in September in the wake of mounting political opposition.
Unlike Summers, a close former economic advisor to Obama, the president has had few personal exchanges with Yellen and initially seemed hesitant to appoint her in what he described as one of his most important economic policy decisions of his second term.

But after Summers’ withdrawal, White House officials talked up Yellen’s prospects on Capitol Hill as they sought to ensure she would pass the sometimes acrimonious and partisan confirmation process.
With more than a third of the Senate’s 55-person Democratic caucus having signed a letter in July urging Obama to nominate Yellen, she is expected to be confirmed. The Senate unanimously backed Yellen in 2010 to become the Fed’s vice chair, and she had served on the Fed board of governors under Chairman Alan Greenspan from 1994-97 as well.
But Yellen, a Democrat who was previously a top economic advisor to President Clinton, could face resistance from Republican members who have opposed the Fed’s easy-money policies in recent years.
Yellen may also find tough questioning about her time as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco from 2004-10, a period when she also was involved in the Fed’s monetary policy decisions. Though Yellen raised early concerns about the risks banks were taking during the sub-prime housing boom, like most economists, she did not foresee the real estate’s disastrous crash, which triggered the worst economic downturn since the Great Recession.
More recently, some have criticized Yellen as being too willing to risk an increase in inflation through aggressive monetary policy in a bid to reduce the high jobless rate. Though the focus on unemployment is popular with many Democrats, and many economists say she is right to lean that way in the current situation, Yellen has nonetheless been painted in some corners as soft on inflation, an inflation dove in Fed-speak.
In recent years, Bernanke and the Fed have been subjected to intense criticism and scrutiny over the central bank’s policies. Bernanke, a Republican, was confirmed 70 to 30 in 2010 for his second term as chairman in what was the narrowest victory margin for a Fed chief in the central bank’s history.
As the Fed’s vice chair, Yellen has been a staunch supporter of the similarly soft-spoken Bernanke as he has gone to extraordinary lengths to stimulate the tepid recovery from the Great Recession.

Under Bernanke, the Fed has kept its benchmark short-term interest rate at near zero since late 2008. The central bank’s balance sheet, or asset holdings, have quadrupled since mid-2008 to $3.7 trillion as the Fed has purchased Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities to pump money into the financial system.
Fed policymakers, including Yellen, had been expected to begin reducing one of the central bank’s key stimulus programs in September. But they decided that the economy, particularly the labor market, wasn’t strong enough to start tapering the $85 billion in bonds the Fed has been purchasing each month since September 2012 to lower mortgage rates and other long-term interest rates.

As well as being the first woman to lead the Fed since it was created 100 years ago, she would be the first vice chair to ascend to the top job.


Professor Cornel West on Monday compared the Obama administration’s use of drones to neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.

During an interview on CNN, he was asked what he thought of Obama’s criticism of controversial self-defense laws like Florida’s “stand your ground” law.

“I was glad to see him bring it in,” West replied. “He said we must never rationalize killing innocent people in the name of self-defense, and then I thought about our drone policy, which makes us the George Zimmerman of the world in terms of killing innocent folk in the name of self-defense.”

“But he is absolutely right,” he continued. “Self-defense must never be used as a way of downplaying the precious lives of innocent people.”

The use of drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists has emerged as one of the most controversial aspects of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. A study published this month found drones caused 10 times more civilian casualties than manned aircraft.

Watch video, uploaded to YouTube by National Review Online.


President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance at the White House Friday to discuss African-Americans’ reaction to last weekend’s verdict in the George Zimmerman case, saying that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”

“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son.  Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African- American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African- American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away,” he said.

Obama addressed the issue personally as well, saying, “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they are shopping at a department store.  And that includes me.”

He recalled his own experiences before becoming a nationally-recognized politician, noting, “There are very few African- American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.”

And he contended that these attitudes often shape perceptions in the United States.

“I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida and it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear,” he said.

Asked if the president had thoroughly contemplated his remarks, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, “I don’t think there’s any question, and you can judge by what he just said and how he said it, he knows what he thinks and he knows what he feels, and he had not just in the past week but for a good portion of his life given a lot of thought to these issues.”

Obama also suggested that the outcome of the case could have been different if Martin were white. “If a white male teen would have been involved in this scenario,” he said, “both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.”

The president also nodded to the Justice Department investigation which is probing whether or not to bring federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman. But Obama also urged state and local officials to review their own procedures to see how to improve their law enforcement practices.

He also called for a review of so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws, a central issue in the case.

“If Trayvon Martin was of age and was armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?” Obama asked. “If the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we should examine those laws.”

Obama said he wanted to “reiterate what I said on Sunday, which is there are going to be a lot of arguments about the legal issues in the case.  I’ll let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those issues.”

The president added, “The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The jurors were properly instructed that in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant and they rendered a verdict.  And once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.”

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And though Obama sidestepped the idea of demanding a new, national conversation on race — and while he said that racism was far from eliminated — the president ended on an upbeat moment, expressing his view that race relations are “getting better.”

“I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. I doesn’t mean that we’re in a post racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated,” he said. “But you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are.”

Obama added: “We have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues, and those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days I think have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long, difficult journey, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”

At first glance it seems nice that Obama has opened up about his past experiences and spoken out against racism. But is he also insinuating that those African-Americans that are protesting against the Zimmerman verdict are only doing so because they feel victimised in society? And that African-Americans cannot detach themselves from negative past experiences and that they are all looking at the Zimmerman verdict through those tinted spectacles? And thereby discrediting any valid concerns about the verdict and legal process by claiming: ‘you’re not seeing the case clearly because you are emotional and because you may have been the victim of racism.’