Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Obama - A One Term President?

When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in November 2008 I assumed that this was the beginning of an eight year reign of the Democrats in the White House. It was a fair thought, at the time. In 2008 Obama was elected in a virtual landslide. He won by a 7% margin, and 365 electoral votes, and won every swing state but Missouri.

What a difference 18 months makes. Since being sworn in the Obama presidency seems to have only hit disaster after disaster – literal or political. The stimulus package passed in early days, and T.A.R.P. which was proposed by the Bush administration, but backed by candidate Obama, which was largely seen as necessary at the time has grown toxically unpopular. The word bailout has become a virtual curse word in the American political lexicon.

Things have only gotten worse. The pledge to hold unemployment to 8% was broken nearly as soon as it happened, which is beyond the control of any political leader. Then there was the debacle involved in passing health care reform. It took a year to pass and left America divided and angry, spurring on the Tea Party movement while disappointing the leftists.

Obama’s approval rating hasn’t been above 50% since November 2009. The most recent polls show more of the American public disapprove rather than approve of President Obama. Political watchers always note when the popularity of a politician drop below 50%. The reason is because in a two-party system if you are below 50% you are far less likely to win. Any win requires 50% + 1 between two candidates.

Now that Obama has consistently sat below 50% and there is a great deal of opposition has congealed. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, it appears the Democrats will lose control of the House of Representatives, and perhaps even the Senate. How likely is any of Obama’s policies to pass with Republicans in control of Congress? The label as “The Party of No” seems fitting. Anti-Obama sentiment is strong in the country, and particularly in the Tea and Republican Parties.

Predicting the November 2012 presidential election in July 2010 is completely out of the question. However, the idea that Obama’s re-election is assured is gravely in doubt. It is now more conceivable that 2012 will look like 2004, a highly divisive and contentious election with a comparatively narrow margin for the incumbent, Obama, to return to office.

Obama’s saving grace is that the presidential election is not a referendum, but a choice, and the Republicans will have to find a man or woman with enough appeal, experience and political savvy to knock off the Obama machine.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Teaching Today

While sitting in my dentist office last week I picked up a copy of Maclean's magazine, essentially a Canadian version of Time magazine. As I flipped through the magazine one article in particular caught my attention. The headline was as follows, "Watch and learn, kids". The article discussed the role movies and films have taken in Ontario classrooms over recent years.

Films have long since had a place in the classroom. Educational films have been around since the cliche "duck and cover" videos distributed in the 1950s. However, according to the article and my own anecdotal experience, Hollywood films are increasingly present in the classroom. Films are intended, or at least should be intended to supplement lessons, not provide them. Romeo + Juliet, the Leonardo Dicaprio version, provides additional insight, but in no way should replace the classic text in English classrooms.

The worst offender, according to the Maclean's article, is geography classrooms where films like The Day After Tomorrow are shown. The film has no basis in scientific fact, and teaches nothing of value. Movies nowadays are used as tools to help control classes, as the carrot to reward good behaviour. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this as a concept except that films eat up an extraordinary amount of class time given the length of the films and the periods. In classes of specialized study, like geography, playing a 2-hour movie can cut considerably into the percentage of time for that subject in a semester.

As a future educator I can see the value in using videos in the classroom, but I cannot truly see the value in watching a film that has no connection to the material you are teaching. There would be nothing wrong, in my opinion if in a history class you played the first few minutes of Saving Private Ryan to illustrate the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, or in Enemy at the Gates for the fierceness of the Eastern Front.

Students should not have to be openly bribed to pay attention and work in class. Films are being misused by some teachers in my opinions to give themselves a break, which though understandable may be inappropriate.

A documentary is soon to be realized called Waiting for "Superman". The film focuses on the plight in the modern American educational system. I strongly urge you to watch the trailer. While it's easy for us here in Canada to get up on our high horse and look down at the Americans two important ideas are key to keep in mind. One, trends tend to match our continental neighbours. What happens in one tends to exist in the other, so we may be about to plunge with the Americans in quality of education. Second, apathy is a recipe for failure. The system of education and standards of teaching must constantly be revised.

I worry that our system of education in Ontario (and most of Canada) protects teachers and their interests than those of their students. It's not enough to be qualified, you have to be compassionate and caring enough to really make a difference. I've worked with some amazing, and a few bad teachers, and some definitely give the impression of coasting through their lessons and just letting the chips fall where they may. I suppose the first step is to try, both students and teacher for real learning to occur, save the blockbusters for the weekend.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Crisis of Faith: The Liberal Party of Canada

A crisis of faith occurs when a person's worldview is fundamentally challenged and requires, usually, a rapid and drastic alteration to confront the new reality. This is what has happened to the Liberal Party of Canada.

Between 1993 and 2006 the Liberal Party held power in Canada. For most of that period the country and party was under the leadership of Jean Chretien (1993-2003). Chretien's successor Paul Martin began an era of failing leadership for the Liberals. Martin very much earned the moniker Mr. Dithers from his flip-flopping on policies and being chronically indecisive. With the combination of mounting negative views of Martin and the corruption charges of Adscam and the Sponsorship scandal the Liberal party lost power in the 2006 election.

However, looking back it is fairly clear that the Liberal majorities of the 1990s and 2000s were largely fueled not by any grand vision or leadership, but by the fractured Canadian political landscape. The Liberals under Chretien only ever won little more than 40% of the popular vote, which in our system is enough for massive majorities. Soon as a credible alternative could be put to the Liberals - a united Conservative Party - they were elected to government.

Say what you will about Stephen Harper, love him or hate him, but he has made serious missteps in government, mistakes the Liberals should have been able to exploit, but the Conservatives have only gained in succeeding elections. In 2008 under Dion the Liberals sunk to a 26.2% of the popular vote, only one time was it less, in 1867 against Macdonald's Conservatives.

Ignatieff like Dion and Martin before him is struggling to gain traction. Why? I believe it is because the Liberals don't stand for anything any more. The party occupies the centre of the political spectrum, so unlike the NDP, Conservatives or Bloc cannot derive massive support from an ideological base, especially considering the centre is contested to some extent by the Greens, and the previously named parties - especially the Conservatives.

Liberal leaders have been forced to lift policies from other parties. Dion's Green Shift was a direct attempt to usurp the Green Party, and the deal with Elizabeth May cooperate to an extent in the election in Central Nova clearly illustrated a need to find some kind of identity.

I consider myself an informed person in terms of Canadian politics, and I cannot really state firmly what the Liberals stand for. This tells me they stand for nothing. The Liberal identity was as the "natural governing party of Canada". After four and half years of Conservative governance that's a hard claim to make. The Liberals were a centrist governing party, and without holding the reigns of power their relevance is being sapped away to stronger, more principled parties - the Conservatives, the Bloc, the NDP and the Greens.

If the Liberals hope to unseat the Harper government hey need to create a cohesive message of who they are and what they believe. A July 6 poll showed the Liberals at 23.9%. At that range the Conservatives could form a majority and the Liberals may be eclipsed as the Official Opposition. The Liberals have gone through three leaders, and created no original ideas. Leadership isn't a flippant choice, people have to want to follow, but first you have to have a real destination.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ripples from Across the Pond

On May 2010 the citizens of the United Kingdom went to the polls and cast their ballots in one of the most dramatic elections in Britain since 1945. The 306 Conservatives, led by David Cameron, with the largest vote share and number of seats in the House of Commons immediately made a public, open overture to the Liberal-Democrats, led by Nick Clegg to form the government. Since mid-May Britain has been ruled by a coalition.

There were two major incentives for the Conservatives to form a coalition. First, Britain is on the verge of an economic crisis with its massive debt and spiralling deficits. Second, by forming a coalition the Conservatives remove the sting and stigma for these policy decisions from themselves alone. The Liberal-Democrats are now in the position of defending the actions of their government because their young leader is deputy prime minister, and they hold significant posts in cabinet.

The Cons and Lib-Dems share a lot of common ground on the budget and economy. Both are free market parties that support free enterprise, but the Lib-Dems are tempered by a progressive ideology and notions of social justice. There is also a gulf of differences, particularly on democratic reform, which is the price the Libs demanded for coalition.

While the political transformation in Britain is ongoing there has been an effect here in Canada. Over the past two months talk as swirled regarding the possibility of a coalition here between the Liberals and NDP. Pieces came out as early as May 14 discussing the possibility. Talk about a coalition initiated in the winter of 2008 between Dion, Layton and Duceppe, but the Canadian public rejected the idea in polling.

I find the discussion of a coalition in Canada following the British election a bit ridiculous. Aping the British seems to be ingrained in the Canadian psyche, but in all honestly we’re comparing apples and beavers.

I suppose the principal drive for the leftist coalition has been the simple comparison. The Lib-Dems and the NDP are both third parties, and the Conservatives and Liberals have been kicked out of power for a number of years. That’s about all the two scenarios have in common by my read, and a minority government was the product of the British election, and likely the outcome of any Canadian election in the near future so a coalition would provide a government with a more stable majority.

On the far left in British politics is the Labour Party, followed by the Liberal-Democrats in the centre-left and the Conservatives on the right/centre-right. In Canada the model is the NDP on the left/centre-left, the Liberals in the centre (debatable) and the Conservatives on the centre-right. The point is that the Liberals are the centrist party in both countries, and as the third party in the UK they could reasonably form government with either of the main parties. The Liberal Dems have long considered themselves part of the middle, and could see a path to coalition. The NDP on the other hand style themselves as the conscious of the parliament.

The NDP are, at least in their own mind, principled voices. When asked to compromise with the Liberals, those who they view as poll-following, power hungry centrists who compromise a progressive vision of the country. Run on the left, and govern from the right. The alliance between the NDP and the Liberals are filled with potholes for both, as Bill Tieleman discusses here.

Curious enough, polls show that even if the parties do merge they would not instantly get the combined support of their component parts. Merged under Ignatieff the new party polls 34% to 40%, with Bob Rae at the helm the Conservatives and new party would be tied at 38%. However, with Jack Layton the new party would lead 43% to 37%. The “protest” vote of the NDP would likely spill to the Greens, especially if the party got dragged to the centre. Moderate Liberals would switch to the Conservatives, especially in a province like Ontario where the NDP are very unpopular.

There’s also the consideration that the NDP and Liberals are from fundamentally different origins. The NDP is largely a deep urban and union party, with support in union towns and remote districts. The Liberals are suburban, or metro.

Canada has a fractured political system, and coalitions between parties are not simple or straightforward. The NDP and Liberals are often political enemies, and have trouble sharing the political left in this country. The talk of merger says to me that the Liberals, as always, are desperate to return to power, and the Conservatives are relatively strong. The NDP see an opportunity to reform the system and gain power as well. Still, it won’t happen, because unlike Britain we are not in the midst of a crisis, there’s no incentive for a drastic political change.