Thursday, June 25, 2009

Obama's Smokescreen





What's the biggest secret that the President and his Administration tried to keep from us? Was it about health care? Did it deal with foreign-policy? Was it where he hides the key to the front door at Camp David? No, it's about whether the President still smokes cigarettes.

The other day, President Obama signed an historic tobacco bill. It was aimed primarily at protecting kids by discouraging tobacco companies from targeting young people. The President said that he knows what it was like to get hooked early. "I was one of those teenagers. I know how difficult it can be to break this habit once you've started." What he didn't say was, "Even though it's difficult, it can be done. I'm proud to say that I did it."

This omission led at least one reporter to ask the President about it. However, he ducked the question like George Bush ducking a shoe. When Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, was asked the question, he didn't want to answer either. Finally, Gibbs said that it's something that the President "continues to struggle with... like millions of Americans have."

I guess in Nixonian terms, you could call that a non--confirmation confirmation. Apparently, the press thought the inhale-and-puff issue was important enough to continue to press the President for details. Finally, the next day, Obama admitted, while he "is 95% cured," sometimes he has "fallen off the wagon." He said he doesn't smoke in front of his kids, and obviously he avoids being photographed with a cigarette in his mouth.

With this admission, Tabloid TV and papers will probably send reporters to dive into the White House dumpster to look for cigarette butts. The Obama's drycleaner will be grilled about any cigarette odors. Disgruntled former generals will give interviews about alleged smoking.

That's why he should make his struggle with smoking public. Very public. First of all, think of the millions of people who can identify with a person who is trying to juggle a high-pressured job with family obligations while trying to stop smoking. It would also demonstrate just how hard it is to quit -- as if more evidence is still needed. If such a determined man who has overcome so many obstacles has a hard time quitting, that stuff must really be addictive. Finally, those who view him derisively as "Mr. Perfect" would see him walking around with a flaw. Actually, puffing on a flaw.

The White House should give out daily bulletins on how he's doing with giving up smoking. The whole country would get involved. It would be bigger than "America's Pet Makeovers" or whatever the latest reality show is called.

I can see the television newscasts beginning with, "Today, the President signed a trillion dollar education bill, warned against nuclear attacks, and threw away half a pack of Marlboros." And then, every day, the evening news would begin with how many days Obama has been without cigarettes. "Today was the President's seventh tobacco-free day," or "One month and still counting," or "Obama falls off wagon but will start stopping again tomorrow."

Instead of pretending that he doesn't hear difficult questions or saying he can't answer them because of national security, whenever Obama doesn't want to deal with something tricky, all he'd have to do is shift the conversation over to his non-smoking: "The struggle in Iran reminds me of another struggle – my struggle with tobacco. It all started when I was a teenager, lured by advertising that made smoking look cool,..."

So if he's still smoking, why does he feel he has to hide it like a teenager who's afraid of being punished? Is it because he went on television during the campaign and pledged that he was stopping? Is he afraid of going back on a campaign promise?

Nah, that can't be it. Presidents break campaign promises more often than roided-out athletes break baseball records. So what is it, you ask? If you remember, he didn't make his "I'll give up smoking" pledge to the nation. He made it to his wife, Michelle. A President can go back on his word to the country and the public will probably yawn. But if he goes back on a promise to his wife, he's in big trouble.

Now that it's out in the open, he'll have to come up with something more clever than, "Michelle, I know Bo just went for a walk, but I think I'll take him for another one. Alone. And the Bidens are barbecuing again, so my jacket might smell smoky when I get back."




Thursday, June 18, 2009

Obama's Food Problem






It's been over a month since President Obama and Vice President Biden snuck out from the White House to have some burgers for lunch. However, we haven't heard the last word about this controversial act. It has been pushed off the front page because the headlines have been hogged by pesky things like the economy, Iran, and Miss USA. But don't make the mistake of thinking that the burger story is toast. I assume that people on all sides are just marshalling their forces before they carefully articulate their responses. The first salvos will probably be from the vegetarians. Expect things like, "How can a President who presents himself as caring about living things eat cow for lunch?"

Barack Obama is not just the President of the United States; he is also the top politician of America. As such, he is careful to please as many people as possible and to offend as few. Presidents always have to balance what they do in public. That's why they rarely choose one sports team over another. Obama has broken with this tradition, openly rooting for some silly baseball team on the South Side of Chicago. So maybe his area for trying to please all the people all the time will be culinary.

Since he went to a place for a hamburger, we can assume that he was appealing to those who feel he is a namby-pamby, recycling, hybrid driving, book reading, yogurt eating liberal. He was showing them that he eats Red Meat. After the polls indicate that he has won over these critics, look for him and Biden to be photographed having lunch at a place like "Mike's Metaphysical Meatless Mart." He'll be biting into an avocado and sprouts sandwich, drinking a carrot and kelp cocktail, and slapping Biden on his hemp shirt.

There will be those who oppose his hamburger consumption on the basis of health. "The President and First Lady talk about healthy eating all the time, and he has lunch at Ray's Hell Burgers!" It wasn't an accident. He may talk about eating more fruits and vegetables, but he doesn't want to be seen as hurting the cattle ranchers and everyone else in the meat industry. So he had a very public hamburger.

If he orders chicken in a restaurant, he'd better specify "free range" chicken or the PETA proponents will be all over him. (This "free range is more humane" thing is something I've never quite gotten. I understand that chickens that are kept in cages are ill-treated and have unhappy lives before they meet their demise and are eaten. But is it more humane to let chickens roam happily like the cast of an old Disney movie and let them think their lives are beautiful, and then surprise them with the axe before putting them on our plates? At least the caged chickens have no dashed expectations).

The next time he and Michelle go on a dinner date in New York, watch for the outcry if they go to a French restaurant. Even though an overwhelming number of Americans now feel that our invasion of Iraq was a mistake just as the French felt when it happened, Americans are always mad at France for something. So you can assume that if the First Couple dines on duck a l'orange, soon they'll be at Ye Olde Publick House, eating "bangers and mash."

Let's say Obama has a hankering for some Middle Eastern food and he goes out for falafel. Before the word gets out that he's soft on certain Arab countries, he'll have to stop off at a deli for some lox and bagels. If he eats Korean food, he'll make sure everyone knows he only likes South Korean food. If he orders a take-out Chinese dinner, he'll be certain that the rear bumper of the car picking it up will have a "Free Tibet" sticker on it.

No wonder Presidents eat most of their meals in the White House prepared by their chefs. It's less of a hassle, less of a chance of offending someone. At least that's the theory. But it seems to me that by doing so, the President runs the risk of offending a huge voting bloc of Americans – those of us who don't have chefs.




Thursday, June 11, 2009

Even The Crooks Are Depressed





You may think that crime has gone up in these dark economic times when more and more people are out of work and fewer and fewer people have money. That hasn't been the case. Generally speaking, most types of crime have declined nationally during the past year. There are many theories about this. Not surprisingly, I have some of my own. I think this downturn in criminality is a result of lawbreakers feeling like most of us -- terribly discouraged about the economy. My guess is they have been thinking things like, "Why steal that money? It's not really worth very much anymore." Or, "By the time I pawn that watch, it'll be worth less than the one I bought at Walgreen's last year." Or, "If I get hurt while committing a violent crime, there's no way that my insurance company is going to pay the medical bills." So crooks have probably determined that committing crimes right now is just not worth the trouble.

For months, we've been hearing the expression, "Nobody has money these days." I think you can also say, "Nobody has money these days to buy stolen goods." So thieves are probably just staying home and watching daytime TV rather than getting off their butts and doing what they've done for years. The longer they stay home without earning money, the more depressed they get. Feeling down, they are less likely to go out, and their self-esteem suffers. It's hard to see an end to this spiral until the general economy goes up.

The only exception to the decrease in crimes has to do with small towns. Places with fewer than 10,000 residents have actually had an increase in illegal activity during this same period. That shouldn't be all that surprising. Sometimes it takes a while for trends to reach rural areas. If you are a student of history, you know this was the case when it came to foreign films, post-modern fiction, and the Macarena. I think that once smalltime crooks learn how their big-city brothers and sisters are comporting themselves during this period, they will start staying home from "work" as well.

In the meantime, one solution for residents of small towns who want to avoid crime is to go to New York. Those new FBI statistics rate New York as the safest city among the 25 largest cities in the United States. Soon you may be seeing an ad campaign for the "Big Apple." It may go something like this: "Tired of locking your doors after you feed the hogs? Angry about looking over your shoulder while you walk down Main Street? Afraid to go into the General Store with more than eight dollars in your pocket? Come to New York where you'll feel safer than a mare in a gelding corral."

Nationally, the type of crime that has gone down the most (while your IRA has suffered the same fate) has been auto theft. That activity has gone down slightly more than 13%. As if things weren't bad enough in the auto industry, now there's proof that you actually can't give cars away. Not even thieves want them.

The FBI didn't give statistics for specific makes or models in terms of which ones are being stolen the least. However, my guess is SUVs and any big car with a huge engine aren't on thieves' "to steal" lists. As we head closer to that time of year when gas prices always "mysteriously soar," car thieves will have a more and more difficult time unloading gas-guzzlers.

And maybe this whole thing with crime going down isn't just about money. Maybe car thieves have evolved just like the rest of us. Perhaps they say to each other, "I don't want my kids to be ashamed of me anymore. So I've gone green. Now, I only steal high-mileage vehicles."




Friday, June 5, 2009

Hummers To The Rescue?






If I heard that someone had actually bought a Hummer in this day and age, I'd consider that big news. So when I heard that someone actually bought the entire company, the Hummer brand, I considered it enormous news. As you doubtlessly know by now, if the deal is approved, a Chinese company will buy the Hummer division from General Motors. This raises many questions, but the big one is WHY?

Last year, sales of Hummers fell 51%, and they are down 67% so far this year. Maybe the new owners think that those who weren't buying Hummers were saying to themselves, "What's holding me back is that they're a General Motors product. I'd buy one of those things if they were just owned by a Chinese company."

The prospective owner is Sicuan Tengzhong, a heavy machinery company. They say they plan to keep selling Hummers in America and all over the world, including China. In China, the Hummers would be subjected to a 40% tax that they impose on vehicles with big engines. So, good luck on that. The good news is that Sicuan Tengzhong says that they are going to continue to manufacture Hummers in this country. So at least for now, approximately 3,000 Americans will be able to keep their jobs. But if I were those workers, I'd keep one eye on the want ads, because I don't know how long they're going to keep making these simulated military vehicles.

It's interesting that General Motors was able to unload Hummer before it sold Pontiac, Saab, or Saturn, the other brands that it is dumping. I would've thought Hummer would've been a tougher sale. After all, the Hummer had come to symbolize many of the admitted negatives of the cars that the American auto industry has been making: It's too big, it's not fuel-efficient, and it looks silly in a nursery school parking lot.

I guess those Chinese businessmen see something in the Hummer that I don't. The parties won't disclose how much money the Chinese company is going to pay for Hummer, but I'm sure it was a bargain. And maybe they made one of those deals the car companies keep advertising on TV -- you know, if the Sicuan Tengzhong executive who agreed to this deal loses his job, G.M. will take back the cars and the Chinese company won't owe a penny.

Legend has it that Hummers came about because of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Apparently, while making the classic film, "Kindergarten Cop," he saw a convoy of military Humvees drive by. He loved the way they looked, so he persuaded the Humvee company to make a civilian version, which became the Hummer. Can you imagine having that kind of power? You'd like to have something, so you talk a company into manufacturing it? I wish Schwarzenegger would look at a commercial aircraft, and call the people who make it and persuade them to make one that's comfortable in coach and always on time.

The Hummer story is filled with irony. Since it looks like a military vehicle, the Hummer has always projected the image of a super-patriotic American car. Some of them are even painted with a camouflage design. The company that made the Humvees that Schwarzenegger admired was located in America's heartland – in Indiana. Now you'd have to go to China to talk to the head Hummer honcho.

It's possible that this arrangement won't end up making either side happy. Why do I say that? Guess who G.M.'s financial advisor is for this deal. It's Citigroup. I'm not kidding. That's the same Citigroup that was so mismanaged that the phrase "toxic assets" came into the vernacular. It's the same Citigroup that received billions of bailout bucks. And that's who G.M. went to for financial advice? That makes about as much sense as a military vehicle company taking business advice from an actor who someday would be governor of a state that goes billions of dollars in debt while he's in office.

Like I said, I'm happy that you Hummer workers won't be thrown out of work, but keep your options open. And don't let them pay you in stock.




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