On Monday, top Republicans continued to heap scorn on the Senate Democratic leader, calling him a liar and accusing him of trying to divert attention from the struggling economy. Democrats pounded back, saying that President Obama’s Republican challenger could solve the problem by releasing more of his taxes.
Indeed, if throwing sand in our eyes and sowing dissension among Republicans were Senator Reid’s goals, he has succeeded: Reid has kept the political world – and most important, the media – focused on speculation around the wealthy Mr. Romney’s taxes, even amid an uptick in the unemployment rate. And Republicans are continuing to say that Romney should release more than the two returns he has already put out.
"I think at this point in time it's going to dog him all the way, and he needs to get it behind him," Republican strategist Ed Rollins said Sunday on Fox News. "I think he needs to release more taxes. Absolutely."
Nearly a week after Reid claimed in an interview with the Huffington Post that an unnamed investor in Romney’s former company, Bain Capital, told him Romney didn’t pay any taxes for 10 years, the topic continues to rage in the political media.
At best, Reid is repeating an assertion for which he has provided no backup. He has not revealed the identity of the investor in Romney’s former company, nor has he explained the specifics of what this investor has allegedly seen or how this person would have access to Romney’s personal tax information. Reid’s defense is that the investor is “an extremely credible source.”
Romney’s response has been, “Put up or shut up.” Democrats are saying, in effect, “Back at you, pal.”
In short, it’s possible that Reid is bluffing. He may know that his source can’t prove his claim. If Romney does release more returns, and is shown to have paid something in taxes, Reid will look foolish. But maybe he doesn’t care. He was reelected in 2010, and will not face voters again until 2016 – if he decides to run at all. And he will have gotten the prize the Democrats and the Obama campaign are looking for: more fodder on Romney’s finances, which include off-shore accounts that are easy to demagogue.
On Monday, The Wall Street Journal editorial page – at times critical of Romney – came out in defense of the former Massachusetts governor. The editorial noted that the paper had called on Romney long ago to release more tax returns and put the matter to rest. But it ended by taking Romney’s side.
“[W]ithout any proof, Mr. Reid's accusations are a smear from the fever swamps that say more about Mr. Reid's ethics than they do about Mr. Romney's taxes,” the piece concluded.
Since 2006, when the latter was named as the chairman of the Federal Reserve system, the former – the libertarian congressman from Texas – has been haranguing Mr. Bernanke during his annual visits to the House Committee on Financial Services.
But with Mr. Paul retiring after this term, Wednesday marked the final chapter of six years of Paul-Bernanke combat. Their engagements have often been the stuff of Internet lore.
Paul-Bernanke matches “certainly made the hearings more interesting – and provided several memorable YouTube moments,” said Rep. Spencer Bachus (R) of Alabama, the chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services at the top of the hearing.
The script usually goes like this: Paul launches into a lecture about Austrian economics for somewhere near half of his allotted time, followed by a perfunctory question to Bernanke. Bernanke answers succinctly, often with a slim smile. Paul then fires off several other questions which Bernanke deflects with a mix of concision and respectful disagreement.
Wednesday wasn’t much different – but it dropped a curtain on a poignant, long-running episode of a broader battle within the GOP on fiscal and monetary priorities.
On one side of that divide stands Bernanke, a Republican and economist with technocratic bona fides after being thrice nominated by President George W. Bush to various posts, including his current spot, before being reappointed by President Obama. On the other is Paul, the leading light for the Republican Party’s disaffected libertarian cohort who see the Bernanke years, including bank bailouts and rock-bottom interest rates for years on end, as not distasteful necessities but deep betrayals of conservative financial principles.
Many on the Financial Services Committee were in a reflective mood early in Wednesday’s hearing – including Paul.
“I have over the years obviously been critical about what goes on in monetary policy, but it hasn’t been so much the chairman of the Federal Reserve, whether it was Paul Volcker or Alan Greenspan or the current chairman, it’s always been the system,” Paul said. “I think they have a job that they can’t do because it’s an unmanageable job, it’s a fallacy, it’s a flawed system, and therefore we shouldn’t expect good results.
Burnished by double a member’s usual time allotment – fellow libertarian Rep. Walter Jones (R) of North Carolina gave up his time so Paul could speak at greater length – Paul uncorked one of his standard diatribes about the Federal Reserve’s secret deliberations over monetary moves.
The argument has particular weight this week, as the House is set to take up (and likely pass) next week Paul’s bill to force the Federal Reserve to reveal more about its deliberations over monetary policy moves.
“Whose responsibility is it under the Constitution to manage monetary policy?” he asked.
“Congress has the authority and it's delegated to the Federal Reserve. That’s a policy decision that you’ve made,” Bernanke replied.
Paul was unimpressed.
“But [Congress] can’t transfer authority. You can’t amend the Constitution by just by saying ‘We’re going to create some secret group of individuals and banks.’ That’s amending the Constitution. You can’t do that, and then all of a sudden allow this to exist in secrecy,” Paul fumed.
Bernanke parried by saying Congress has given that authority and they could decide to take it away. He wouldn’t recommend it, as he argued independent central banks have delivered better economic results than nonindependent ones. But Congress could do so.
“Congress ought to get a backbone, we have a right to know, we have an obligation to defend our currency,” he said.
And that launched a soliloquy that was picture-perfect Paul.
“It’s the destruction of the currency that destroys the middle class. There’s a principle of free market thinking that says destroying the value of the currency through inflation, you transfer the wealth from the middle class and it gravitates to the very wealth. The bankers, the government, the politicians – they all love this. It is the fact that the Federal Reserve is the facilitator. If you like big government, love the Fed. They can finance the wars and all the welfare you want ... but your country ends up in a crisis. It’s a solvency crisis, and it can’t be solved by printing a whole lot of money,” he concluded.
Paul, whose warnings about debt, deficits, and inflation have been his calling card during some 20 years in public service, later offered another line of argument that could stand in as an essential statement of his critics during his time in Congress.
“We’re in deep doldrums and we never change policy. We never challenge anything. We just keep doing the same thing. Congress keeps spending the money, welfare expands exponentially, wars never end, and deficits don’t matter,” Paul said.
And what did Bernanke say to that? Nothing, directly. Paul had gobbled up all of his available time. Only when Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts asked for a moment for Bernanke to respond did he get a word in to defend the Fed’s current procedures.
“So far my views have not prevailed,” Paul later said, “but I have appreciated this opportunity to have served on the [financial services] committee.”
Americans are deeply divided on President Obama's health-care plan – and so were the thousand-plus activists outside the Supreme Court who braved the 95-degree heat to be at the epicenter of Thursday's historic ruling.
Chants of "USA!" and Yes, we can!" mixed with jeers from a tightly packed crowd – some arriving hours ahead of the decision – when the Supreme Court announced its decision to uphold the 2010 health-care law.
The tide of opinion has been running against the Obama plan – the signature achievement of his first term. Only 28 percent of Americans said that they would be pleased if the Supreme Court ruled that the health-care law was constitutional, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Thirty-five percent of Americans said they would be disappointed by such a decision and another 37 percent had mixed feelings or were unsure.
That full range of views was represented outside the Supreme Court on Thursday.
“It was constitutional, and it was the right thing to do," says Lauren Weiner, deputy communications director for Americans United for Change.
For other supporters, the ruling was a mixed blessing. Molly Smith, who works with Planned Parenthood, says the health-care law did not go far enough but hoped the Supreme Court's decision could serve as a powerful stepping stone toward universal healthcare. "This is better than nothing, but I think we have a long way to go to make health care that’s affordable for all people,” Ms. Smith says.
But for health-care opponents, including several Republican leaders on hand, the court’s decision marked a call to action: Repeal the health-care law.
Rep. Phil Gingrey (R) of Georgia, co-chair of the Republican Doctors Caucus, said he was “bitterly disappointed by the action” and encouraged protesters to take all possible actions to ensure that Congress quashes the law. Mr. Gingrey even sent a direct message to Chief Justice John Roberts, who sided with the court’s four liberal justices in declaring the constitutionality of the individual mandate.
“I’m ready to call for the impeachment of Chief Justice Roberts based on this decision,” Gingrey said, eliciting a loud and long string of boos from health-care supporters.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota, who chairs the House tea party caucus, said that upholding the law would further slow the recovery of an ailing economy. "The pragmatic effect of this decision is there will be a black cloud over an prospect of economic recovery in the United States,” she said.
Still others said that the event, with all its diverse opinions, represented core American values.
“This is what democracy is about – getting out here and being able to protest,” says Sam Williams, who traveled an hour and a half to register opposition to the law."
Never mind taxes, wars, immigration, same-sex marriage, or global warming – here’s a question that is always at stake in any presidential election year: Chocolate Chip or Oatmeal Raisin?
Or this year’s iteration: Mama Kaye’s White and Dark Chocolate Chip or M&M?
It’s not quite the Kitchen Debates, but for the past 20 years, Family Circle magazine's Presidential Cookie Bake-off has been a wildly popular sideshow to the presidential election campaign: Which candidate’s spouse makes a better cookie?
The magazine has sponsored five previous contests in every presidential election year since 1992 when Hillary Clinton and Barbara Bush crossed cookie sheets and went mano-a-mano over Chocolate Chip Oatmeal (Clinton) vs. Chocolate Chip (Bush).
It works like this: The candidates’ spouses offer up favorite cookie recipes for public consumption. Readers then whip up their own batches and vote on which cookie is tastiest.
It isn’t quite like fortune cookies, but the magazine sponsors insist that the winning recipes are surprisingly accurate in their outcomes, predicting the eventual occupants of the White House in every contest with the exception of one: Cindy McCain’s Oatmeal Butterscotch beat out Michelle Obama’s Shortbread in the 2008 culinary vote, though the popular vote of course ultimately favored Barack over John.
(Bill Clinton, it should be noted, also got into the game that year (Oatmeal) as Hillary Clinton challenged Mr. Obama in the Democratic primary race.)
And spare us your snarky political assumptions: Democrats don’t only use vegan, gluten-free, hemp-and-flax, free-range, organic, non-GMO ingredients and Republicans don’t only use butter, sugar, chocolate, and red-white-and-blue sprinkles.
There have, by the way, been some unusual cookie components in the past, notably: pumpkin puree (for Theresa Heinz Kerry’s Pumpkin Spice), and white vinegar (Tipper Gore’s Gingersnaps).
No, that wasn’t a rock concert rattling the rafters and raising the roof at Boston’s august Symphony Hall.
Nor was it a religious revival shaking the 112-year-old hall’s gilded balconies and snarling the city’s already notorious rush-hour traffic.
It was merely Barack Obama storming through town Monday evening to rake in some cash for his reelection campaign and to bask in a rapturous reception from supporters and donors, deep-pocketed and not.
The president’s star quality may have dimmed since 2008, but it hadn’t among the adoring 1,800 people who ponied up between $250 to $2,500 to see the Democratic incumbent offer up grist on Republicans, taxes, immigration, job creation, and even a barb on the Red Sox that got what sounded like boos. (This is sports-mad Boston, don’t forget.)
On a day when the US Supreme Court offered a mixed bag of fraught judicial opinions, the thunderous ovations and millions of dollars he pulled in gave affirmation that for now Mr. Obama doesn’t have much to worry about in the blue-state Bay State.
“The debate in this election is not whether we have more work to do. Of course, the economy is not what it needs to be. Of course, there are too many folks still struggling. Of course, things should be better. These challenges were built up over years. They weren’t created overnight. They won’t be solved overnight,” he said.
“But the big thing is with this election is how do we grow the economy back together? How do we create more jobs? Moving forward, how do we find more opportunities? How do we pay down our debt? How do we reclaim that basic bargain that makes America the greatest nation on Earth? How do we do it?” he asked.
Both Obama and his likely Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have raised substantial amounts of money in the state, though neither has spent much time campaigning here. Obama has netted more than $7.7 million in contributions this election cycle, as of the end of May, according to federal campaign filings. Monday's visit brought in at least $3 million more. By contrast, Romney has collected nearly $4.9 million in direct contributions from state residents.
Monday’s visit most likely will be Obama’s last before November. Polls show Obama with a solid lead over Romney here.
So while stumping votes wasn’t the priority during the one-day visit, stumping for dollars was. The Symphony Hall event was bracketed by an even more elite pair of gathering in the Boston area: one at a posh bistro in the city’s swanky South End with 25 supporters who reportedly paid $40,000 each to attend, and later on, a fundraising dinner with 100 people at a private home in one of the state’s wealthiest towns. Tickets reportedly cost $17,900 per person and $35,800 per couple.
If Obama’s fundraising prowess in a state that voted overwhelmingly for him in 2008 was never in question, neither was his ability to inspire a crowd to jump to its feet for nearly a dozen standing ovations and at least as many applause lines during his 40-minute Symphony Hall speech.
“We believe that in America that your success shouldn’t be determined by the circumstances of your birth,” he said. “We believe that if you work hard, you should be able to find a good job. You make your responsibilities, you should be able to support your family, own a home, start a business, give your kids opportunities you could never imagine.
“No matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, no matter who love, no matter what your last name is,” he said.
In between poking fun at the Red Sox, Republicans, and even himself, he also presaged the Supreme Court decision on health care, expected on Thursday, that could define, or doom, his presidency.
“You can decide whether ending bailouts for Wall Street banks was the right thing to do; whether preventing insurance companies from discriminating against people who are sick is the right thing to do; whether allowing over 3 million young people to stay on their parents’ health insurance plan, whether that is the right thing to do,” he said.
The undercard for Monday’s event could very well have deserved equal billing. Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law professor whose bid to unseat Republican US Sen. Scott Brown is one of the most closely watched races in the country this year, poked at Romney and his campaign trail comments on corporations, but made no mention of her competitor in her introduction for Obama.
In the end, it was clear that few in the audience needed any persuading.
“It’s a tough world. As he said, he’s not a perfect man, he hasn’t been a perfect president. But he’s got the vision that I think people will respond to,” said Al Zabin, a trial lawyer from the suburb of Lexington.
“The main thing people have going against him is fear. When people are afraid, they’re polarized. When people are afraid of losing their jobs, the homes. When people are afraid, they don’t think,” said attendee Priscilla Douglas, who served as secretary of consumer affairs under Republican Gov. William Weld in the 1990s.
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If you're a 99 percenter and think something called a "Robin Hood tax" sounds like a good idea, what better time to don a mask and a pointy-topped hat than on the day JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon gets grilled by Congress?
Mr. Dimon might have become the new symbol of corporate profligacy when his company lost some $2 billion in stock trades, but Occupiers on Tuesday dreamed of socking his Wall Street brethren with a much bigger number. Say, $100 billion.
If Congress were to pass a financial transaction tax – a.k.a. the Robin Hood tax – the "rich" (stock- and bondholders) would lose a small percentage of every trade, which would be given to the "poor" (insert your cash-strapped federal program here). All without adding a cent to personal income taxes.
Its backers – including actor Mark Ruffalo, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, and Coldplay’s Chris Martin – appear in a video drawing masks and hats on dollar bills. In front of the JP Morgan Chase headquarters in New York Tuesday, a group of about 40 activists (and one dog) also dressed in Robin Hood attire tried to drum up public support.
"As a democracy, I think it’s what we want, but the people who would be taxed are the most powerful people in the country,” says Michael Kink, executive director of Strong Economy for All Coalition.
Unfortunately for Tuesday's would-be Robin Hoods, Washington is no Sherwood Forest. Republicans on Capitol Hill are against any tax increases, and even potential allies such as President Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have said the tax wouldn’t be feasible.
Critics say taxing financial transactions could move all that Wall Street business offshore and would be more likely to affect individuals’ retirement savings than financial traders. Obama administration officials have said that it would be ineffective.
“Academics tend to be big supporters of this – back when he was an academic Larry Summers was a big proponent of this, but he changed his mind” when he became Treasury secretary, says Pete Davis, an economist who advises Wall Street on financial legislation.
Advocates are talking about between a 0.5 and 0.005 percent tax on every transaction, but those numbers add up quickly. The tax would generate more than $300 billion a year if there was no reduction in trading, according to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Different proposed versions of the tax have more modest estimates.
When Sweden enacted a similar tax, traders moved to the London Stock Exchange and the volume of trading declined significantly, says Shelly Antoniewicz, senior economist with the Investment Company Institute (ICI).
“We view [the taxes] as being more harm than good, the side effects or negative consequences would outweigh the benefits,” she says.
ICI has a letter to Secretary Geithner on its website, stating its opposition to a transaction tax.
Robin Hood activists tried to do the ICI one better.
“I knocked on Tim Geithner’s door, but he didn’t answer," says Bobby Tolbert, an activist in New York Tuesday who went to Washington last week to try and generate interest in the tax plan. "We just wanted to deliver a letter to him, but the Secret Service stopped us.”
Still, Mr. Tolbert's merry band can claim at least one small victory.
Quoth he: “As we were leaving, a neighbor told us that they would deliver the letter for us.”
I’d read about the new but eerily lifeless subdivisions of Las Vegas and central Florida, the ghosts of the American housing collapse of 2007. But the sight of all those empty monuments to Spain’s housing boom and bust gave me an odd thought: Will it be these earth-toned, tile-roofed, and abandoned townhouses in Madrid (and just about every other Spanish city) that will determine if Barack Obama wins four more years in the White House?
My wife and I were in Spain recently to visit our son who is finishing up a semester abroad. In northern Spain, the countryside was gorgeous and Swiss-like. In Bilbao (where our son studied), the transformed industrial city that is home to the fantastic Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the signs of any looming economic collapse seemed sparse.
But elsewhere, the shuttered shops, the strangely vehicle-free highways, and always those lifeless residential developments were vivid reminders that this economy is in deep trouble. In every hotel where we slept, in every bar where we had morning café con leche or afternoon pintxos (better known as tapas outside of Basque Spain), newspaper headlines kept us abreast of how Spain, joining Greece on the precipice, threatened to plunge Europe into economic chaos and considerably deeper recession, and even to bring down the euro.
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Such a grim turn for Europe would travel across the Atlantic like a tsunami, set off by Spain’s economic calamity. That prospect is what conjured up the connection between the abandoned townhouses and President Obama’s reelection prospects.
Those newspapers gave context to the signs of a troubled economy that we saw every day. We skimmed headlines about failed and dangerously undercapitalized banks, about dim prospects for rescue by the European Union, about speculation over the euro’s future. We read deeper into stories about the human toll of Spain’s 25 percent unemployment rate – a rate that flirts with 50 percent among young people – and about how a scarcity of capital is dooming thousands of new small Spanish businesses, many of them started by young entrepreneurs in more promising times just a few years ago.
We read about how at the height of the housing boom, about 1 in 8 Spaniards was employed in construction. Given Spain’s population of about 47 million, that’s a lot of hands hammering and sawing and painting and roofing housing units that too often were destined to sit empty.
As tourists, we reaped some benefits from the economic turmoil. A few restaurants offered “crisis daily menus,” presumably priced a few euros less than what the same three-course meals cost last summer. Some shops trumpeted discounts of 10 or 20 percent in their windows, while those “going out of business” promised much steeper reductions.
But we also encountered a few inconveniences – like the four-hour detour through the mountains of Asturias, occasioned by the province’s coal miners having decided to close down the main highway to protest steep job cuts.
Other than that incident, however, we picked up little hint from Spaniards themselves of a country in economic distress. We saw none of the lines outside banks that we heard were visible in Madrid; we encountered no public-employee demonstrations. If it weren’t for all those empty townhouses, we might have blithely overlooked that this was a country on the brink.
In A Coruna, a port city on Spain’s northwestern tip, I did see an emphatic protest, “No a la Crisis!,” spray-painted in bold black letters on a seawall.
Stopping to photograph the scrawl, I could imagine Mr. Obama, who had made “Si se puede!” part of his campaign repertoire in 2008, adopting this new exclamation for the campaign of 2012.
Don’t go there. That, in essence, is the message Thursday from Mitt Romney, who said he “repudiates” an idea that was reportedly under consideration by an outside GOP group to run ads using the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. to attack President Obama.
But that news came after an explosive reaction across the political spectrum, from both the Romney and Obama campaigns, as well as political strategists and observers. And once again, the issue of race has been injected into the campaign.
During the last presidential campaign, videos of incendiary sermons by Mr. Wright, the president’s former spiritual adviser, came to light. John McCain, the Republican nominee in 2008, refused to make Wright an issue and Mr. Romney, the party’s presumptive nominee this year, is furthering that view.
According to Thursday’s New York Times, Chicago billionaire Joe Ricketts was considering a $10 million ad campaign that would highlight Obama’s former relationship with Wright, who espouses “black liberation theology.” Mr. Ricketts, the founder of TD Ameritrade, and a “super PAC” he supports, the Ending Spending Action Fund, were considering various proposals from a group of high-profile Republican strategists, including this idea.
Midday on Thursday, Brian Baker, president of the Ending Spending Action Fund, released a statement on behalf of Ricketts.
“Joe Ricketts is a registered independent, a fiscal conservative, and an outspoken critic of the Obama administration, but he is neither the author nor the funder of the so-called ‘Ricketts Plan’ to defeat Mr. Obama that The New York Times wrote about this morning,” the statement read.
“Not only was this plan merely a proposal – one of several submitted to the Ending Spending Action Fund by third-party vendors – but it reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects and it was never a plan to be accepted but only a suggestion for a direction to take,” the statement continued. “Mr. Ricketts intends to work hard to help elect a president this fall who shares his commitment to economic responsibility, but his efforts are and will continue to be focused entirely on questions of fiscal policy, not attacks that seek to divide us socially or culturally.”
Earlier in the day, Romney also rejected the proposal.
“I repudiate the effort by that PAC to promote an ad strategy of the nature they’ve described,” Romney told the conservative Townhall web site Thursday. “I would like to see this campaign focus on the economy, on getting people back to work, on seeing rising incomes and growing prosperity – particularly for those in the middle class of America.”
The new world of unlimited spending in support of political campaigns, as sanctioned by the Supreme Court in 2010, has opened the door to increased involvement in politics by wealthy benefactors like Ricketts (whose family owns the Chicago Cubs). He and his super PAC are fresh off an upset victory Tuesday in the Senate GOP primary in Nebraska, in which an underfunded state legislator named Deb Fischer defeated both the Republican establishment and tea party favorites with the help of Ricketts-funded ads.
The Wright proposal would have involved running TV ads around the Democratic National Convention in early September in Charlotte, N.C. The team of strategists presenting the proposal includes former advisers to one-time presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, including adman Fred Davis, according to the Times.
The strategists anticipated charges of race-baiting, and so their plan included “hiring as a spokesman an ‘extremely literate conservative African-American’ who can argue that Obama misled the nation by presenting himself as what the proposal calls a ‘metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln,’ ” the Times reported.
By law, a super PAC is barred from coordinating its activities with the campaign it supports, but that didn’t prevent Romney from making his views clear through the media Thursday. Other Republicans voiced opposition to the plan.
“This has the potential to be a recipe for disaster,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, who worked for the McCain campaign in 2008. “There could be a significant backlash, and that’s not what Romney needs in this tight race.”
The people who might listen to a racially charged argument against Obama are already not voting for him, while independent swing voters could be turned off.
The argument for leaving race out of presidential politics has long been articulated, including by black conservatives. One, author Shelby Steele, made the case a year ago in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal entitled, “Obama’s Unspoken Reelection Edge.”
Mr. Steele argued that Obama’s race gives him a “cultural charisma” that most Republicans cannot have, and that the way to defeat Obama electorally is to go after his performance in office, not his identity.
“There have really always been two Barack Obamas: the mortal man and the cultural icon,” Mr. Steele wrote. “If the actual man is distinctly ordinary, even a little flat and humorless, the cultural icon is quite extraordinary. The problem for Republicans is that they must run against both the man and the myth. In 2008, few knew the man and Republicans were walloped by the myth. Today the man is much clearer, and yet the myth remains compelling.”
Anyone who consults with Steele is likely to advised to steer clear of Jeremiah Wright. It would only enhance the myth.
It's commencement season – and the time-honored tradition of politicians using graduation speeches as a platform for their messages is in full swing.
On Monday, it was President Obama's turn, as he spoke to the women of Barnard College in New York.
"Don't just get involved," he told the Barnard audience. "Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table."
His words were, for the most part, the kinds of platitudes to be expected at a commencement (in addition to urging grads to be activists, he also told them to "persevere" and "never underestimate the power of your example"). But the location was particularly notable – just as it was for Mitt Romney's commencement address two days earlier.
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Mr. Obama, whose campaign has been targeting women voters this election year, zeroed in on Barnard – a top women's college that has been affiliated with Columbia University since 1900 – back in February. He requested the speaking slot back then, and the Barnard president replaced New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who had originally been designated the speaker.
It's a natural fit for Obama. It helps reach women and young people – both key parts of the electorate he wants to mobilize. Moreover, Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, graduated from Barnard, and Obama graduated from Columbia.
Mr. Romney's choice of commencement venue was also illuminating – and perhaps not quite so comfortable for the GOP presidential candidate.
On Saturday, he spoke at Liberty University, the Evangelical college founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.
For a candidate who has been struggling to resonate with evangelicals – though his approval ratings among that group are finally rising – it seemed like a very targeted appeal.
And coming shortly after Obama's headline-making support for gay marriage, Romney earned some of his loudest applause for stating his position on the issue:
"As fundamental as these principles are, they may become topics of democratic debate. So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman."
Romney went on to emphasize America's Christian roots. "It strikes me as odd that the free exercise of religious faith is sometimes treated as a problem, something America is stuck with instead of blessed with," he told his audience. "From the beginning, this nation trusted in God, not man. Religious liberty is the first freedom in our Constitution."
And he added that “culture – what you believe, what you value, how you live – matters."
The speech was a major foray into a key constituency that Romney needs to step up for him this fall – and that, during the early primary season at least, was reluctant to embrace him.
In Obama's Barnard talk, meanwhile, the president was urging young people to be politically active – and, presumably, to head to the polls for him in November.
"It’s up to you to hold the system accountable and sometimes upend it entirely," he told his audience. "It’s up to you to stand up and to be heard, to write and to lobby, to march, to organize, to vote. Don’t be content to just sit back and watch."
The audiences couldn't be more different, though Romney did, through some creative advertising, try to reach some of those same New Yorkers and young people interested in Obama's Barnard remarks.
According to Politico.com, Romney's campaign on Monday purchased Web ads targeted specifically to the 10027 ZIP Code in which Barnard is located. When Google users in that area searched for "barnard commencement" Monday – perhaps looking for logistical information about the speech – the first ad they saw was a link to Romney's website entitled "Obama's Wasteful Spending." (Underneath, it said: "leaving graduates with an economy not creating the jobs they deserve.")
Obama's speech was just the beginning of a swing through friendly New York territory. He also taped an interview on ABC's "The View," (which will air Tuesday) and planned to attend a fundraiser hosted by singer Ricky Martin.
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“We decided to put it out late at night so it would be sort of the first thing people would see in the morning,” the ex-presidential candidate told Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” Tuesday night. The endorsement had gone out at 11 o'clock the night before.
Besides, Mr. Santorum joked, it wasn’t really all that late. “We have seven kids so we don’t sleep,” laughed the former Pennsylvania senator, wearing his trademark sweater vest. (He gave Mr. Leno one, too.)
Why was the endorsement “kind of buried,” as Leno put it, in the e-mail to supporters? Because, in essence, the message was about him, not Mr. Romney.
“This was a letter to my supporters – who were for me – to say, ‘Well, here’s now why I think we should rally around Mitt Romney and support him,’ " Santorum said.
Leno reminded Santorum that he had once called Romney “the worst Republican” to take on President Obama. Santorum said he was referring specifically to “Obamacare,” the health-care reform based on Romney’s fix of the Massachusetts system when he was governor. Leno defended “Romneycare,” saying people in his native state seemed happy with it – and asked Santorum how he’d feel if all the states put in place similar reforms, given conservative support for states’ rights.
Santorum: “Can you imagine what ‘The Tonight Show’ would look like if the government ran ‘The Tonight Show’?”
Leno: “I see what it looks like with NBC running it!”
Leno also asked why Republicans, known for promoting strong defense and fiscal policy, now focus so much on cultural issues, which he called “diversions.”
“It’s the culture, it’s not the economy,” Santorum said. “The culture matters. Look at every great civilization. They don’t fail because a foreign power overtakes them. Oh, ultimately a foreign power destroys them, but they were all destroyed before the foreign power took them over. They were falling, they were failing as a culture.”
“The economy – yeah, it’s important,” he added. “But the culture is what holds people together.”
Perhaps this was a hint at Santorum’s next step? In his e-mail to supporters, he had promised a “big announcement” soon – one that will involve asking them “to once again join forces with me to keep up the fight, together.”
Santorum is best known as a culture warrior. The socially liberal Leno peppered him with questions about gay adoption and teen contraception. Santorum happily stood his ground. But he made clear he doesn’t think the government should ban all things he personally believes are wrong, such as contraception and smoking.
“So a gay couple smoking with a contraceptive would be the worst thing,” Leno quipped.
“Heaven forbid!” Santorum laughed.