Let’s Talk 2016! What? Too Soon?

With the love-fest that was the 60 Minutes co-interview with President Obama and the outgoing Secretary of State, it looked to me to be the groundwork of the 2016 election season.

President Obama was inaugurated just over a week ago, and here we find ourselves, a relatively teensy snippet of time into his second term. With immigration reform and the debt ceiling pressing, the gun control debate spiraling into ever more shrill pitches, and pointed looks into his use of drone strikes, now is of course the time to project into an uncertain future and remark on who might be the next guy to take his seat.

“Guy” of course, is a euphemism to a mean either “man” or Hillary Clinton.  With the   love-fest that was the 60 Minutes co-interview with President Obama and the outgoing Secretary of State, it looked to me to be the groundwork of the 2016 election season. In the way that Bill Clinton almost single-handedly ignited Obama’s reelection campaign, Obama is publicly repaying that favor, recycling the loving stare that Mitt Romney employed during each of their Presidential debates.

The Secret Service couldn’t contain Joe Biden during the inaugural parade as he constantly ducked around them to shake hands and kiss babies. Coming from his successful negotiation with Senate leaders to avoid the fiscal cliff, it’s looking good for Joe in 2016 as well.  His goal for the short term: help secure the economy and wind down the war in Afghanistan.  Long term: distance himself from Obama. 

Obama’s inaugural speech was unprecedented in that he included a multitude of social ideas that had never been thus far voiced by a politician of his stature:  gay rights, gun control, climate change.  Boom.  But when he said “Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone,” there was a disconnect between his version of events and the reality of his last term. 

According to Conor Friedersdorf of The Altantic, “Obama favors greater central authority in health care, energy, education, gun regulation, and occupational safety. His underlings have actively undermined state efforts to decentralize marijuana policy. And on national-security matters, he has worked to centralize authority in the executive branch.”

Here’s where Joe comes in.  Whereas Obama can scarcely contain his contempt for Congress (and who can blame him?) Joe steps up.  The negotiations that mark the makeup of deal-making are his bread and butter – he knows them, he gets them, and by the reflection coming off of his shiny whites, he loves them.  He can be what Obama simply cannot – the bridge between the Senate and the Oval office and the beginning of taking this country back to its federalist roots, putting power back to the states. 

If Obama is the elitist who doesn’t trust the states to do what he deems is right, then Biden does, as long as there is effective leadership.  This is evident from his thirty-six year tenure in the Senate, as Chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee to his work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Hillary has markedly less experience in the Senate and once proved to be as polarizing a candidate as one could possibly be.  Yet she brings with her the heavyweight status of Secretary of Statesmanship and the badass reputation that resulted from her tenure, traveling to 112 countries and transforming Benghazi from what the Republicans wanted to paint as her 9/11 (really?) but will be etched in the hearts of the public as the righteous smack-down of Ron Johnson and Rand Paul.  What it really comes down to is what the state of the country is like four years from now: will the focus be on foreign policy, where Hillary’s experience reigns, or will we see an America fed up with partisan bickering and looking for someone like Biden, who demonstrated that he can lay down the boxing gloves long enough to make a dance partner with the likes of Mitch McConnell?

This could all be null and void if New York’s own Andrew Cuomo continues on the upward momentum of his liberal agenda.  He’s already succeeded in passing gay marriage legislation, and led the country with the first and so far strictest gun control laws, effectively limiting the number of bullets magazines can hold here.  After recouping the state from the inept Governor Patterson after the dramatic step-down of Eliot Spitzer, Cuomo has the advantage of being high profile politician-bred in a powerful state in need of constructive change. (I’m still not ready to talk about Spitzer.  It still hurts.  He should know that he and I are not on speaking terms, though I read him on Slate, and love every sensible smart word that comes out of his mouth.) 

For Cuomo, he’s placing his bets on jobs and education as his “one-two punch” for economic development. If he can reinvigorate the economy and pass more laws to give him top-notch Progressive street cred (Women’s Equality Act, protecting the right to choose and legalizing pot, anyone?), both Hillary and Joe will see some serious competition.  Especially if he can channel the Obama the Orator the way he did in his State of the State address:

 “Our state Capitol is restored to its original majesty in many, many ways.  We set out two years ago to bridge the divide. We needed to bridge a divide from yesterday to tomorrow; from what was to what can be; from dysfunction to performance; from cynicism to trust; from gridlock to cooperation to make the government work. And we are, literally and metaphorically.”

“You people in the media are incorrigible,” Obama chastised 60 Minutes‘ Steve Kroft. “I was literally inaugurated four days ago and you’re talking about elections four years from now.”

That’s why I waited all the way until now to bring this up.

AIDS at 30

Boom. Heroin has gone viral, just as AIDS did back in the day when our complacency gave the virus a head start that will take us a full century to overcome.

How Long Island’s Opiate Crisis Threatens HIV Prevention Goals

It’s World AIDS Day again and this year’s theme is “Getting to Zero,” suggesting that the complete elimination of new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths is within our grasp. After thirty years and 30 million AIDS deaths worldwide, that’s of course, great news. Echoing the theme, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton mused about an “AIDS-free generation” in a November 8th speech and Ambassador Dr. Eric Goosby, who serves as the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, recently opined on the Huffington Post that we are at a “tipping point” in the fight against the deadly disease.

President Obama, in the forward to his administration’s long-awaited National HIV/AIDS Strategy released in July of last year, noted that nearly 600,000 Americans have died of AIDS since the onset of the epidemic, 56,000 still become infected each year and an estimated 1.1 million are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Still, the document predicts that “the United States will become a place where new HIV infections are rare,” and lays out a goal to reduce HIV infections by 25% by 2015. Wait. Twenty-five percent? Is that really the best we can do?

That means that in 2015, 42,225 people will become infected with HIV, instead of the current 56,300 and that between now and then, best case scenario is another 150,000 Americans infected with an incurable, invariably-fatal virus that is 100% preventable. That’s what success looks like in Washington these days.  At that rate – a 25% reduction in new infections every five years – we’ll still have 24,000 new cases in 2025, 10,000 annual infections in 2040 and in 2060 – 50 years from now – we’ll still have 3,171 people each year that contract HIV. We won’t fall below 1,000 new cases until about 2081, which is exactly 100 years after the epidemic first appeared among a handful of gay men. Now anything can happen, but it sure looks like we’re going to take our time “getting to zero” and it’s safe to say that the “AIDS-free generation” probably won’t occur in our lifetimes. What’s worse is that given the current state of affairs, we probably won’t even hit those targets.

Obama’s director at the Office of National AIDS Policy – who helped write the report – resigned last month, the federal budget is a mess and HIV is the last thing on anyone’s mind. The failure of the Congressional “supercommittee” to come up with a workable fiscal plan means that essential programs for people living with, and at risk for HIV are threatened with deep cuts. Medicaid, Medicare, the Ryan White Program, public assistance, unemployment benefits and HIV prevention programs are all on the chopping block. State and county funding cuts have impacted local community-based programs and schools, which means fewer HIV-tests, less prevention education and ultimately, more infections.

While AIDS has historically been protected from funding reductions, both because of the severity of the epidemic and the grassroots activists that sprung into action at every whispered threat, those days are over. Everything is on the table, AIDS has morphed from a short-term acute crisis into a chronic, intractable problem and fighting the disease doesn’t appear to be on anyone’s list of priorities.

But there’s another variable that promises to set-back anti-HIV efforts in a big way and it didn’t even get a mention in the Administration’s report: our rapidly expanding heroin crisis among young people. We’ve seen it here on Long Island and communities – especially suburban centers – across the nation are experiencing the same thing.

A quarter of all new HIV infections nationwide occur in young people ages 15-29. Most don’t know that they are infected and as such, unwittingly pass the virus on to their peers either through unprotected sex or contaminated needles. Kids who are high on heroin – or anything else for that matter – have sex more frequently than their peers, and they do things they wouldn’t otherwise do when they are impaired or in search of the next fix.

Heroin has hit Long Island hard and the number of addicted young people continues to skyrocket. Most start with prescription pills and eventually move from $50 OxyContins to $10 bags of heroin. The longer you use, the more you need to use in order to achieve the same effect, so you become the go-to person who heads into Bushwick and brings back enough for your friends in order to finance your increasingly expensive habit. Boom. Heroin has gone viral, just as AIDS did back in the day when our complacency gave the virus a head start that will take us a full century to overcome.

Young people who two years ago were snorting heroin, are now injecting it. They’re sharing needles and they’re having unprotected sex, in part because they haven’t gotten the messages about HIV, Hepatitis C and sexually transmitted infections. Prevention materials – created in the 1990’s – tend to focus on the older drug user and many treatment programs still don’t do a great job teaching risk reduction, despite the well-established connection between addiction and communicable diseases, including HIV. This cohort of young people isn’t likely to call an AIDS hotline, attend an educational program or visit a health-related website because they don’t see themselves as being at risk.

Sure, they know about AIDS, but only as a distant threat and as a chronic manageable condition akin to diabetes. They were in diapers when President Clinton took on AIDS in a way his two predecessors wouldn’t and when MTV ran a steady stream of PSAs between music videos. They’ve never heard of Ryan White and probably don’t even know that Magic Johnson is HIV-positive. They didn’t see their friends tethered to IV poles and literally wasting away in what was then called the Nassau County Medical Center or Stony Brook Hospital for weeks at a time. They didn’t witness the discrimination – the worst of which often came from family, or attend the steady stream of funerals, and have never climbed the walls waiting for results of an HIV-test.

While we’ve made some strides in the last 30 years and AIDS is a different disease than it was back then, it’s still no party and if we don’t change course, we’ll have a brand new wave of HIV infections on our hands. Young people who find a path to recovery from addiction and begin rebuilding their lives will get slammed with a life-changing diagnosis and an AIDS-free generation will remain even further out of reach.

Hot, Flat and Pissed

With so many moderate Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats tossed from office, the next two years will see both sides break against the middle. The problem, of course, is that we are the middle. With two years of guaranteed political gridlock ahead of us and a sluggish economic forecast for 2011, decisive action from Washington on domestic issues will be near impossible. Equally troubling is that the knots that tie our nation together are quickly becoming undone. The more we struggle to achieve consensus on domestic issues, the less pressing foreign policy will seem—and the more dangerous the world will become.

A snapshot of the globe right now paints a terrifying picture, with nearly every country dealing with civil unrest and a pitiful economy. The cracks are beginning to show. Sectarian hostility in Iraq is intensifying as it has yet to establish a centralized government and the United States has officially tapped out. The absence of a strong Iraq has emboldened the fundamentalist leadership of Iran despite reports of widespread unrest among civilians troubled by the lack of civil liberties. Meanwhile, the political vacuum in Pakistan, exacerbated by a slew of natural disasters, has made it one of the most unstable countries on the planet. All of this is a backdrop to one of the worst impasses in recent Palestinian/Israeli/U.S. relations, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is trying to piece back together with chewing gum and paperclips.

And that’s just one part of the Earth.

If we don’t take action and pay closer attention to our surroundings, bigger issues than health care and extending the Bush-era tax cuts await. These issues require a deeper understanding of global issues. This is the time for intellectuals, not cowboys. But according to research conducted by ThinkProgress.org, a liberal policy website, 50 percent of the incoming freshmen House Republicans “deny the existence of man-made climate change” and 86 percent are “opposed to any climate change legislation.” Further, 39 percent of them have “declared their intention to end the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship.” Awesome. Big thinkers indeed.

Barack Obama is a big thinker. He has big thoughts but has an even bigger problem: himself. He can’t seem to get out of his own way, and seems incapable of blowing his stack even though most of us wish he would. At least, then he would look human. But if the president doesn’t start aggressively speaking out now and warn the nation that the world is in peril, he will indeed be a one-term president. And it won’t be because of the economy, it will be because all hell is breaking loose.

In terms of foreign policy, he has a terrific grasp of international relations. His instinct to stabilize the situation in Pakistan by creating a more economically vibrant India, for example, suggests a profound grasp of global politics.

Our most recent experience in Iraq is the perfect illustration of this clear-minded thinking. Had the Bush administration ousted Saddam Hussein simply on the basis of denying access to U.N. nuclear inspectors and not the tenuous presence of weapons of mass destruction, a new political structure could have been implemented in Baghdad without dismantling the entire physical and political infrastructure of the nation. One of the prevailing sentiments among the generals who led the war in Iraq is that the Iraqi military and police personnel had allegiance to the Ba’athist regime primarily through fear, not ideology or respect, and would have been useful in maintaining order. If the trio of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had listened to their generals and taken control of the existing government and military instead of leveling the entire nation, a sustained diplomatic and political presence in Iraq would have given the U.S. the reputation of “liberator” instead of “occupier.” All told, we could have maintained the moral high ground in Iraq and, more importantly, prevented its total economic collapse.

The lesson here: A more stable Iraq equals a more cautious Iran. Likewise, a stable India equals a Pakistan more focused on competing within the region and protecting itself from a natural, regional enemy and less dependent on America. And so on and so forth throughout the world.

But having spent all of his political capital on a shoddy but well-intentioned health care bill, Obama lacks the power or the funding to make any significant global power plays, let alone push a domestic agenda for the next two years. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden can keep their fingers in the dam for only so long. When the flood comes, we’ll see just how bad the Bush-era foreign policy decisions really were; while historians will note this in time, Republicans today will simply pin all of these problems on Obama. Such is the life of a president. Or at least a president who refuses to blow his stack and stand for something.