Sunday, October 18, 2015

Obama's coming to town!

Last week, President Barack Obama announced his intention of visiting Charleston, West Virginia to discuss the rampant drug problem in Appalachia. While no state is immune to the ills of the illegal drug trade, West Virginia has been more adversely affected by the influx of heroin and other opioids.  Regions within our borders have some of the highest rates of overdoses and deaths caused by overdoses in the nation.

I anticipated that the president's announcement would draw criticism from a large number of citizens here, but over the past three days, I've been baffled by the ugliness displayed in response to a well-meaning overture by the president. 

Conrad Lucas, head of West Virginia's Republican Party, called the president's decision to come here "tragic and offensive." What is offensive about the leader of this nation placing West Virginia as a priority on his agenda? This phrase of tragic and offensive has become the battle cry for the GOP in the Mountain State.

Do you want to know what's really tragic and offensive?  The Huntington tri-state area being on a pace for more than 700 drug overdoses this year, which is six times the national average. Statistics show that typically 10-15% of theses overdoses will result in death.  West Virginia has been leading the nation in per capita overdose deaths since 2011. 

The phraseology of Republicans was also on display in a media release, titled, "Democratic War on Coal Set to Spike the Ball Here: Obama Visiting W.Va. After Destroying Economy, Jobs." In this statement, the GOP attempted to frame the president as the lone figure in causing economic problems here. Its tone and demeanor also give a strong implication that the president's actions are the cause of substance abuse among unemployed workers. Strangely, I don't see the GOP supporting the notion of 'personal responsibility' with this issue.

Even if this was true, and Obama was single-handedly responsible for 'killing coal,' would you really spurn his offer to help a state that faces an existential crisis? Would any of us be so proud as to turn away assistance from the single most powerful person in the world? Do you truly believe he would come here to gloat and 'spike the ball' to a state that overwhelmingly despises him?

West Virginians don't want to admit that President Obama's administration isn't the primary cause of job loss in the coal industry. Yes, the regulations placed on mining operations by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have made it more difficult to open and operate coal mines, the GOP and practically most citizens are ignoring the fact that the coal industry is facing a looming crisis that predates the Obama administration.

Back in August, I wrote a post about the economic difficulties facing West Virginia. I'm borrowing some of the material I used then to illustrate a point:
Mining was once dependent upon having a significant number of manpower to extract coal. Numerous people were required to create timber pieces and place them to stabilize mine. Prior to 1950, coal was loaded almost entirely by hand. Drills worked faster. Not even John Henry could keep pace. So, what happened to the production levels of coal? They skyrocketed.
In 1900, the United States produced approximately 200 million tons of coal. By 1960, that number had doubled to 400 million tons. The peak production of nearly 1.2 billion tons was reached circa 2010.
The number of mining jobs has been shrinking for over 100 years. Mechanization is killing mining jobs. Decreased demand for coal from overseas markets is killing coal. President Obama's impact on coal is nothing compared to the forces of economics. West Virginians have also been plagued by greedy business owners and executives, who have often profited at the expense of the coal miners.

Former CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, is currently being tried for various crimes associated with pushing for more coal production (to meet demand) despite having knowledge that mines were out of compliance with safety regulations. Where is the Obama-level of scorn for Blankenship? 

Where is the outrage over companies like Patriot Coal, who file for bankruptcy, allowing other companies to buy up their equipment and assets as a discounted cost, while leaving the company's liabilities in the wind? Retired coal miners' pensions have been lost due to corporate greed.

So, who's really responsible for killing coal? And for that matter, in nearly 7 years, Obama has not come for your guns. Are there reasons to be frustrated with him? Absolutely, but you're never going to agree with every policy of a politician. 

The President of the United States wants to visit a state that abhors his very existence. They didn't vote for him, in part, due to GOP shenanigans. Also remember that this is a state who has a problem that President Obama is half-black. In the 2008 Democratic primary, 20% of voters were actually willing to admit that race was a factor in how they voted. In the 2012 primary, 41% of West Virginians voted for Keith Judd, a prison inmate serving time in Texas for extortion and making threats against a university.

Perhaps the question we should be asking is why President Obama would want to come here?

Neither President Obama nor anyone in his administration has revealed the details about the duration of his stay, where he will be speaking, or to whom. The content and duration of his speech are also unknown.

Before we begin to throw stones at the president for showing up, I want to know why critics are quick to denounce the visit and claim that we don't need his help. Don't we owe it to the president to hear what he has to say before condemning him?

Maybe you're wondering what the president can actually do to help this problem. As the nation's chief executive, he has the authority to convene Congress for special sessions and power to suggest legislation. The president's powers also extend to cover all executive departments and government agencies. These groups receive significant funding to handle epidemics such as substance abuse and drug addiction.

What government agencies can help here? Plenty. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Center for Disease Control (CDC), Department of Health & Human Services, AmeriCorps, Department of Commerce, Department of Labor, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Department of Education, Department of Interior, and the Job Corps all have subject matter relating to the problems in West Virginia. They all answer to the President of the United States.

So, what's the problem? Do we really want to cling to our pride and hatred when the state is faced with so many problems, the greatest of which is drug addiction? Can we look past the political parties and ideologies that cause gridlock and somehow work together for a common good? 

Despite having serious differences with President Obama on numerous social and economic policies, I have a difficult time supporting most Republicans.  They can't focus on the issues.  The GOP constantly blows smoke, and their tactics smell of desperation because their transparency has become so painfully obvious. 

The time has never been more right for a new political party to form and supplant the Republicans in representing the genuine conservative interests of this nation.  There's no chance at reforming the Republican Party and Election of 2016 will bear that out.  It's easier to birth a new child than it is to raise the dead. 

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