News & Current Affairs

September 11, 2008

US marks seventh 9/11 anniversary

US marks seventh 9/11 anniversary

New York has paused to remember the times two planes struck the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 – an attack that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Four moments of silence are being held to mark the times when four hijacked passenger planes hit the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain are attending a ceremony at Ground Zero in New York.

President Bush dedicated a new memorial at the Pentagon, where 184 died.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opened Thursday’s memorial event at Ground Zero, where families of the victims read out a roll call of those who died.

The attacks, which triggered the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the Bush administration’s war on terror, are regarded as the defining moment of President George W Bush’s time in office.

At the Pentagon, he paid tribute to the acts of courage shown by Americans seven years ago, saying: “The worst day in America’s history saw some of the bravest acts in America’s history.”

A flag was raised over the Washington memorial, which was built at a cost of $22m (£12.6m) on a 1.9-acre (0.77-hectare) parcel of land within view of the crash site.

The president was joined in the US capital by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld.

Mr Bush had stood earlier for a moment of silence with First Lady Laura Bush on the White House lawn at the time the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

It is the last time Mr Bush marks the anniversary as president.

“The president thinks about 9/11 every single day when he wakes up and before he goes to bed,” White House press secretary Dana Perino said on the eve of the anniversary.

‘Put aside politics’

Senators Obama and McCain, the Democratic and Republican nominees in November’s election, will appear together at Ground Zero in the afternoon to lay wreathes in honour of the victims.

Passenger plane hits second tower of World Trade Center on 11 September 2001
11 September 2001 is a day many around the world will never forget

In a joint statement from the campaigns announcing their decision to visit Ground Zero together, the two men vowed to come together “as Americans” and suspend their political campaigns for 24 hours.

“We will put aside politics and come together to renew that unity, to honour the memory of each and every American who died, and to grieve with the families and friends who lost loved ones,” the statement said.

Their appearance is to be followed by another in the evening at a Columbia University forum to discuss their views on public service.

The ceremony in downtown Manhattan is marking the times when the planes hit the Twin Towers, and when each tower fell – pausing for silence at 0846, 0903, 0959 and 1029.

Family members and students representing the 90 countries that lost people in the attacks also read out the names of all the 2,973 dead.

Seven years after the attacks which shocked the world, Ground Zero is a construction site.

9/11 MEMORAIL TIMETABLE
1340BST: New York World Trade Center ceremony begins
1346: Moment of silence (time first plane hit North Tower)
1346: President Bush has moment of silence at White House
1403: Moment of silence (time second plane struck South Tower)
1430: Mr Bush in Washington for 9/11 Pentagon Memorial dedication
1459: Moment of silence (time South Tower fell)
1529: Moment of silence (time North Tower fell)
1545: Members of Congress gather on the West Steps to honor those killed and injured on 9/11

After years of delays and disagreements over how to commemorate the dead, work has finally begun on a memorial and a new skyscraper – the Freedom Tower – which is due to be completed by 2012.

On Wednesday, Mr Bloomberg called for the abolition of the WTC planning agency, saying the reconstruction was “frustratingly slow”.

“Most important, the memorial must be completed by the 10th anniversary. No more excuses, no more delays,” he added.

On the eve of the anniversary, a top US military commander warned new tactics were needed to win the conflict in Afghanistan, which the US and its allies invaded three months after 9/11.

They aimed to topple the Taleban and hunt down Osama Bin Laden, who the US believes masterminded the attacks.

Admiral Mike Mullen believes insurgents are launching attacks from neighboring Pakistan, and US-led forces must target their “safe havens” in that country.


What are your thoughts on this anniversary? Are you attending any 9/11 memorial ceremonies? Send us your comments and reflections

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September 9, 2008

Economic battle is joined in US race

Economic battle is joined in US race

Jobseekers at a jobs fair in California. File photo

Unemployment is rising in the US as the credit crunch hits home

With just two months to go before the US presidential election, the state of the economy is far and away the biggest concern for most US voters.

The credit crunch has inflicted severe damage on Wall Street, left millions at risk of losing their homes, and millions more in negative equity.

Unemployment has risen above 6% while high petrol prices and rising inflation have squeezed household budgets to the limit.

Things are unlikely to get any better soon. Most economic forecasts suggest that the economy will slow sharply in the rest of 2008. The first official figures will be published in late October – on the very eve of the election.

TOP ISSUES
Economy: 39%
Iraq: 14%
Gas prices: 4%
Source: Washington Post/ABC News telephone poll, 19-22 August 2008, sample size 1108, margin of error +/- 3%

This is the background for a battle over economic policy that has so far been dominated by two issues – energy prices and taxes.Senator McCain made headlines by calling for a temporary suspension of federal gasoline taxes over the summer. He favors a major expansion of nuclear power and further drilling for oil on the US continental shelf. His running mate Sarah Palin, meanwhile, is a strong advocate of further development of Alaskan oil and gas reserves.

Mr Obama has called Mr McCain’s proposals “the same old gimmicks” though he has recently softened his outright opposition to drilling.

His energy plan calls for a big effort to shift the US towards cleaner energy, a windfall tax on oil companies, and a $50bn government investment plan to promote “energy independence”.

Tax cuts

To boost the economy, Senator Obama and many Democrats in Congress would like another stimulus package, worth around $50bn – following on from the $168bn package already put into effect – and more aid to help people at risk of foreclosure to stay in their homes.

But the growing size of the government’s budget deficit, which is expected to more than double to $400bn next year, limits the scope for further action of this kind.

It’s the size of that deficit that has put taxes at the heart of the economic debate between the two candidates.

Mr Obama wants to repeal the “tax cuts for the rich” of the Bush administration, and use the money to give further tax breaks to the “middle class” (all taxpayers earning less than $250,000), including special tax relief for college education.

He also has ambitious plans to use the tax system to boost jobs, provide subsidies for healthcare, and help redistribute income to the working poor.

PORK- BARREL POLITICS
Commerce: $9bn
Defence: $9bn
Military construction: $6.6bn
Energy: $4.6bn
Transportation: $3.2bn
Foreign aid and exports: $14bn
Congressional earmarks in FY 2005. Source: Congressional Research Service

Senator McCain, however, reversing his earlier position, wants to keep the Bush tax cuts, which he argues will help small businessmen and lead to more job creation, while balancing the federal budget by eliminating wasteful spending.He has attacked “earmarks”, the system of “pork-barrel” politics where individual Congressmen and Senators get extra spending projects for their districts by attaching riders to important bills.

The most infamous of these pork-barrel projects was the $400m “bridge to nowhere” – which would have linked the 7,000 people in Ketchikan , Alaska, with their airport on Gravina island, replacing a three-minute ferry ride – promoted by the now-disgraced Alaska Republican Senator Ted Stevens.

It was Sarah Palin’s role as governor of Alaska in ultimately blocking this project which first brought her to the attention of Senator McCain.

But earmarks make up only $50bn of the $2,000bn Federal budget, according to the Congressional Research Service, and two-thirds of them relate to military spending or foreign aid, which Mr McCain has pledged to preserve.

Balancing acts

The ability of both candidates to project bold economic policy initiatives has been limited by disagreement within their own camps.

Manhattan street scene - file image

Wall Street wants a fiscal conservative – but small businessmen want tax cuts

Mr Obama’s economic instincts appear to lie with the moderate wing of the Democratic party, to judge from his appointment of Jason Furman, a close associate of former US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin as his economic advisor.These “Rubin” Democrats persuaded the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, that balancing the budget was more important for long-term economic growth than new spending programs.

Senator Obama has emphasized “nudge” economics, where the government tries to encourage individuals to take out private pensions and healthcare, rather than big new government programs.

But he faces pressure from the Democratic base, which is expecting him to tackle the lack of healthcare coverage for one in six Americans, and from the unions, which want him to do more to protect American jobs from “unfair” foreign competition.

Expanding health coverage to all children, as he has proposed, could cost at least $100bn a year.

And his support for renegotiating trade talks to include clauses recognising workers’ rights has worried businessmen.

Senator McCain, meanwhile, also has to appease two conflicting constituencies.

Many traditional Republicans share Mr McCain’s original beliefs in small government, low taxes and a balanced budget – as, mostly, does Wall Street, the US financial centre.

However, the Republican Party in power increased spending, especially on defence, while cutting taxes, leading to growing deficits.

Mr McCain backs higher defense spending, and in recent months he has increasingly leaned to the “supply-siders”, Republicans who believe that tax cuts are more important than balancing budgets – a view many small businessmen on Main Street, struggling in the economic downturn, would endorse.

Empathy

Both parties are also divided on how far the government should go in bailing out homeowners and banks who are the victims of the credit crunch.

Many Main Street Republicans are outraged by the idea that people who undertook irresponsible home loans, when they knew they could not afford them, should be bailed out – a view Mr McCain sometimes reflects.

And many left-leaning Democrats believe that the big banks and their shareholders who irresponsibly promoted sub-prime lending should be allowed to fail, rather than being bailed out by the US Treasury – as happened with Wall Street investment bank Bear Stearns and now the government-sponsored giant mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The policy solutions so far put forward to ease the credit crunch have been agreed on a bipartisan basis between Congress and the Bush administration.

WHO DO YOU TRUST MORE TO HANDLE THE ECONOMY?
Barack Obama: 50%
John McCain: 39%
Neither/None: 9%
Source: Washington Post/ABC News telephone poll, 19-22 August 2008, sample size 1108, margin of error +/- 3%

But voters have consistently expressed more confidence in the Democrats’ ability to handle the economy than the Republicans’ – so it’s a puzzle why this has not translated into a decisive poll lead for Senator Obama.

This may be because the battle is really over perception – which candidate has more empathy for the economic plight of ordinary Americans.

The choice of Sarah Palin as Mr McCain’s vice-presidential candidate was partly an attempt to put an “ordinary hockey mom” at the heart of his campaign.

Senator Obama, for his part, devoted much of his speech at the Democratic convention to the difficulties faced by hard-working Americans – perhaps hoping to banish the memory of his comments in March about “bitter” small-townspeople.

“It’s not because John McCain doesn’t care – it’s because John McCain doesn’t get it,” he said.

If Americans are persuaded that one candidate both understands their problems and can fix them, that could be the key to an election victory.

So far there is still everything to play for.

August 30, 2008

McCain unveils ‘The Barracuda’

McCain unveils ‘The Barracuda’

There were no late night text messages and perhaps not the same build up that preceded the announcement of Barack Obama’s choice for running mate.

John McCain and Sarah Palin (29 August 2008)

Mrs Palin has been credited with bringing in reforms in her time in office

But because it was kept a secret almost until the end, John McCain’s choice did generate a fair amount of rumor and speculation.

Was he going to pick a traditional candidate, a safe bet – someone like the young governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, or would the veteran Arizona senator go for the wild card?

The answer came on a private jet that flew in from the Alaskan city of Anchorage on Thursday night and landed outside Dayton, Ohio, apparently carrying on board a woman, two men and two teenagers.

All the journalists who were covering the story started looking up the biography of Sarah Palin, the 44-year-old governor of Alaska.

‘Average hockey mom’

She may be seen by some as a rising star of the Republican Party, but she was relatively unknown on a national level.

As he took to the stage, in front of a packed audience, Mr McCain introduced her as “exactly who I need, exactly who this country needs to help me fight the same old Washington politics of me first and the country second”.

For observers, it showed Mr McCain felt he needed to make a bold move to help change the course of the race to the White House.

SARAH PALIN

Elected Alaska’s youngest and first woman governor in 2006

Grew up in Wasilla, near Anchorage, and was voted Miss Wasilla in 1984
Studied journalism and political science at University of Idaho
Is mother of five, including a son with Down’s syndrome
Her husband Todd is an oil production operator
Likes hunting and fishing

The two presidential hopefuls have been running head to head, with Mr Obama gaining eight percentage points in the polls in recent days.

The choice of Sarah Palin is a high risk bet that could bring high rewards, but there are no guarantees.

Mrs Palin, a mother of five, is the first woman to be on a Republican presidential ticket.

Married for 20 years to Todd Palin, her high school sweetheart, she was nicknamed “Sarah Barracuda” during her college years for her aggressive basketball playing style – the name has stuck.

On stage, dressed in a conservative black power suit, her hair raised in a high ponytail, she described herself as “an average hockey mom from Alaska”.

She drew applause when talking about her anti-corruption drive, her standing up to big oil companies and even the “good old boys club”, which drew a smile from Mr McCain.

She eats moose meat and is an inveterate hunter, a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

One of her sons is heading to Iraq in September. The other, born in April, is diagnosed with Down’s syndrome.

‘Exciting choice’

In many ways, her story is all American and her values will appeal to the conservative base and to blue-collar voters.

With 80% approval ratings back home, she seemed to also get the approval of the crowd she was addressing, drawing very enthusiastic cheers, as she spoke in a relaxed, accessible way.

It turns out the women of America aren’t finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all
Sarah Palin

Mrs Palin also ticks several required boxes – she is fiscally conservative, in favor of drilling for oil and very staunchly anti-abortion.

Most of all she is a reformer and a fresh face for the Republican ticket.

President George W Bush said she was “an exciting choice” and Mrs Palin certainly adds energy and sizzle to the McCain campaign.

She also clearly reached out to disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters, who are disappointed their candidate did not make it on to the Democratic ticket, not even as vice-president.

“I can’t begin this great effort without honoring the achievement of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and of course, Hillary Clinton, who showed determination in her presidential campaign,” Mrs Palin said.

“It was rightly noted in Denver this week that Hillary left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America. But it turns out the women of America aren’t finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.”

The Democrats for McCain group sent out an e-mail saying its supporters, especially the women, were “ecstatic” about the choice of Mrs Palin.

But other Democrats said they felt insulted that Mr McCain thought he could woo women by just putting any woman on his ticket, with one sentence making the rounds: “Palin, you are no Hillary Clinton”.

Experience questioned

It all made for an exciting day in Dayton, a city of just over 150,000 that has been hard hit by job losses in the past few years.

But the whole of the US is probably now scouring the internet for more information about Governor Palin and trying to assess her credentials.

Sarah Palin visits troops in Kuwait (24 July 2007)
What is it exactly that a VP does every day?
Sarah Palin

Many will be wondering whether she is ready to be vice-president and even lead the US, should something happen to Mr McCain if he is elected president.

As commander of the Alaska National Guard, she visited troops in Kuwait last year, but has a very thin foreign policy background.

Similarly, while she does have executive experience, the Obama campaign wryly pointed out she had been the mayor of a town with just 9,000 people.

As governor of Alaska during the past two years she has gained more experience, but even some Alaskans calling into talk shows on US network television said they doubted whether that had prepared her for the challenge of national politics.

She did herself no favors in a recent interview.

“As for that VP talk all the time, I can’t answer until someone answers me. What is it exactly that a VP does every day?” she said just a month ago on CNBC when asked about her chances of being on the ticket.

“I’m used to being very productive and working real hard in an administration. We want to make sure that this VP slot would be fruitful type of position especially for Alaskans and for the kind of things we are trying to accomplish here for the rest of the US.”

Investigation

By choosing her, Mr McCain may have undercut his best attack against Senator Obama – if he uses the inexperience card now it will be turned against him and his running mate.

While conservatives, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh and former Bush adviser Karl Rove, hailed the Palin surprise, there were also dismayed reactions from some Republicans, who felt the choice underscored Mr McCain’s weaknesses and was too risky.

Polls in the coming days, and Mrs Palin’s performance at the Republican National Convention, will help assess the impact of Mr McCain’s decision.

In the meantime, Mr McCain and his new partner have something else to worry about – Mrs Palin is facing an investigation in Alaska for alleged abuse of power involving her former brother-in-law. Her deposition is expected to be scheduled soon.

She says she has “nothing to hide” and is “cool” about the investigation.

August 25, 2008

Obama sets out to sell his vision

Obama sets out to sell his vision

Barack Obama has a hard act to follow at this convention: himself.

Barack Obama speaks in Wisconsin

Barack Obama faces a career-defining moment

Four years ago, when Democrats gathered for their national convention in Boston to nominate John Kerry, the then-US Senate candidate made a much-lauded, career-defining speech. His message of a unified America, coming from the mouth of a young, mixed-race politician, marked the effective launch of the history-making Obama phenomenon.

It also brings a level of expectation ahead of his speech on Thursday, which the last Democratic candidate, who went on to become president, did not have to face.

When nominee Bill Clinton spoke at the 1992 Convention in New York, it was four years after he had made a convention speech that was widely seen (including by Clinton, himself) as rather long-winded and boring.

He did not repeat his mistake. With his “I still believe in a place called Hope” speech, the Arkansas governor defined himself in a way that resonated with the country at large.

Weight of history

Barack Obama needs to do something similar. With opinion polls placing him in a tight race with Republican John McCain and suggesting that sections of the public still do not have a clear impression of who he is, his goal is to come out of the week having defined himself as someone whom Americans can feel comfortable about as a leader.

He needs to sell his vision, his experience and his unconventional background.

Pepsi Center, Denver

Mr Obama must unite the Democrats behind his campaign

He will be selling that vision of himself on an auspicious date: the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.

But, while that may add to the weight of history on his shoulders, the location of his speech represents a break with history.

Obama will not accept the nomination in the Convention Hall, but at the 70,000-seater Invesco Field, home of the Denver Broncos Football team. This will provide a unique spectacle, but it also presents a certain danger of perception for a candidate who – since securing the Democratic nomination in June – has faced accusations of being too presumptuous about his chances of winning the November election.

Clinton tensions

And while the 1992 Clinton experience offers him a something of a blueprint for success, the 2008 Clinton presence, on the other hand, presents him with potential pitfalls.

Both Hillary and Bill Clinton will be speaking at the Convention. Their performances – on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively – will be watched closely for signs of party disunity, that could harm not only Barack Obama’s chances, but those of Democrats running for Congress in November.

Despite a joint appearance with Senator Obama in Unity, New Hampshire earlier this summer, Hillary Clinton is still dogged by questions about her level of support for the man who narrowly beat her to the nomination. Many of her supporters are still unhappy about the manner of her defeat. There is also concern that she was not seriously considered for the position of running mate, which Senator Joe Biden has secured.

Bill Clinton, file picture

Observers will be closely watching Bill Clinton’s mood

By allowing Senator Clinton’s delegates to participate in a formal nominating roll call vote – recognising the historical nature of her campaign – the Obama team hopes to defuse some of the remaining tensions and shore up the support of the millions who voted for the former First Lady. Neither outcome is a foregone conclusion.

John McCain’s campaign is doing its mischievous best to stir things up: releasing an advert, showing Hillary Clinton asking some of the same questions about Barack Obama’s experience and judgment during the primary campaign which they are asking now.

But, perhaps, it is Bill Clinton’s speech that will be the most closely dissected; both for its words and for the body language of the man delivering it. By his silence, the former president has given the impression that he is still sulking about Obama’s victory over his wife.

Many Convention-goers will be looking for him to swallow his pride and give the sort of full-throated endorsement of the party’s nominee, that will sway Democrats flirting with John McCain, and help to repair some of the damage done to President Clinton’s own reputation during the primaries.

As he effectively hands over the role of party leader to a younger man, he can still play the role of party healer.

How to measure the success of this? The time-honoured tradition has been to look at the “convention bounce” – the boost in the opinion polls which a candidate gains from his moment engulfed in balloons and ticker tape. Bill Clinton, for example, got one in 1992 and never relinquished his lead over George H W Bush.

Time is not Barack Obama’s side, though. No sooner has the Democratic Convention finished, than the Republicans meet in St Paul, Minnesota.

So the onus is on Senator Obama to make the most of his time in the spotlight, before the spotlight quickly turns to his Republican rival, John McCain.

August 20, 2008

McCain and Obama spar over taxes

McCain and Obama spar over taxes

John McCain and Barack Obama

The economy and oil have been key issues for both candidates

Barack Obama’s senior economic adviser Austan Goolsbee has accused John McCain of proposing huge tax cuts for rich people and large corporations.

Mr Obama’s tax cuts for “ordinary Americans” would be three times larger than Mr McCain’s, he promised.

Mr McCain’s economic adviser, Doug Holtz-Eakin, countered that Mr McCain’s tax cuts would help firms create jobs.

Speaking to the BBC World Service, both advisers clashed on how to end the US dependence on foreign oil.

In a debate between both advisers on the Business Daily program, Mr Goolsbee said: “Barack Obama’s tax cuts for ordinary Americans are three times larger than John McCain’s.””The way that John McCain’s package ends up being three to four trillion dollars more is that they give humungous tax cuts to high income people and large corporations.”

Small firms

In fact John McCain has no plans for cuts in personal income tax. But he does propose to cut the rate of corporation tax from 35% to 25% in an effort to revive the ailing US economy.

Mr Holtz-Eakin told the BBC: “In this economy in the past six months with over 400,000 jobs lost we’ve seen the small businesses – those with less than 50 employees – add 283,000 jobs.”

He underlined the importance of not damaging those small businesses: “keep them in a position where they don’t have onerous health care costs and mandates to provide expensive benefits to their employees.”

Barack Obama says he will spend $50bn immediately to jump start the economy and introduce tax credits for working families.

He is also proposing to invest $150bn in clean energy over the next decade, creating 5 million new jobs.

Energy policies

Mr Goolsbee said the US had to make a commitment to wean itself off its dependence on oil.

John McCain believes that we have a dangerous exposure to imported oil
Doug Holtz-Eakin, economic adviser to John McCain

“It is the mentality of the past eight years to listen to the oil companies that got us into this mess and we have to have a different energy policy to get out of it.”

Mr Holtz-Eakin denied that John McCain would follow the same energy policy as George W Bush.

“John McCain believes that we have a dangerous exposure to imported oil,” he said.

“It is his primary objective to put the United States in a position where it is no longer strategically exposed by this dependence.

“The first and foremost objective is to change the way Americans drive,” he added.

Foreclosures

Mr Goolsbee warned that more Americans would lose their homes unless there were tighter controls on the mortgage industry.

He said failure to address the fundamental challenges of oversight of the housing market – an issue that Senator Obama identified 18 months ago – could prompt “a second wave of the foreclosure crisis in the United States.”

Mr Holtz-Eakin said that John McCain would not be afraid to speak out in favor of free trade, even at a time when American jobs were being lost.

“Globalization is an opportunity.”

However he added: “Not everyone automatically gains from globalisation, and we do have an obligation to help those workers who do not instantly benefit to get an opportunity for the future.”

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