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President Obama delivered his first State of the Union address Wednesday night with a pledge to focus on the nation’s economic recovery. Vowing to help spur job creation, Obama unveiled his expected announcement to freeze government spending programs next year. Obama also addressed the logjam over healthcare reform, urging Democrats to continue trying to pass legislation.
President Obama: "Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t."
Obama also called for a repeal of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," which bars openly gay servicemembers in the US military. But ignoring calls for an executive order, Obama urged Congress to enact the repeal.
Honduras is entering a new phase following the swearing-in of a new president and the departure of the now former president Manuel Zelaya. On Wednesday, President Porfirio Lobo was sworn into office. A wealthy landowner, Lobo was elected in a November race boycotted by Zelaya supporters. Hours after the ceremony, Zelaya ended his four-month stay in the Brazilian embassy and left Honduras for exile in the Dominican Republican. Just before boarding the plane, Zelaya told the assembled crowd, "We’ll be back." Just before Zelaya left Honduras, the Honduran Supreme Court dismissed all charges against six military commanders involved in the June 28th coup that removed him from office. The Obama administration says it’s not ready to restore aid to Honduras suspended following the coup. But Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela said he believes the new president, Lobo, is taking Honduras "in the right direction."
Arturo Valenzuela: "I thought the President’s speech was excellent. It was a speech of national reconciliation for all the people of Honduras."
The Haitian government is appealing to the international community to improve the earthquake relief effort as the confirmed death toll is now near 170,000. On Wednesday, Haitian President René Préval said he is thankful for the international assistance, but said it needs "better coordination." Préval’s comments come as the Associated Press reports his government is receiving less than a penny for each dollar the United States spends on aid efforts in Haiti. Thirty-three cents of every dollar goes to US military aid, over three times the nine cents spent on food.
Also Wednesday, Préval announced he would indefinitely postpone parliamentary elections and won’t seek re-election when his term expires in February 2011. The Haitian government has also slowed down the adoption process for Haitian children abroad. Flights carrying orphaned children have been suspended over concerns the children could be victimized by human traffickers. Foreign adoption cases will now require the personal approval of Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.
Rescue teams meanwhile continue to find survivors beneath the rubble. On Wednesday, a teenage girl was pulled from the rubble of her home after fifteen days buried underneath.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting the Pentagon is escalating military operations in Yemen with a major new deployment of Special Forces. Military officials say the number of US operatives will "significantly increase" above the estimated 200 Special Forces currently on the ground. The US has been deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops that have killed scores of people, including civilians and suspected al-Qaeda leaders, in the past six weeks. The news comes as the US and other nations met Wednesday in London at an international conference on Yemen. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US won’t just rely on military operations to fight Yemen’s militant extremists.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "We recognize that the challenges facing Yemen cannot be solved by military action alone. Progress against violent extremists and progress toward a better future for the Yemeni people will depend upon fortifying development efforts. The Yemeni people deserve the opportunity to determine their own future, not leaving their fate to extremists who incite violence and inflict harm."
Foreign ministers are also meeting in London today for an international conference on Afghanistan. On the eve of the summit, a coalition of aid groups issued a warning that the militarization of aid to Afghanistan is endangering Afghan civilians. In a report titled "The Dangers of Militarised Aid in Afghanistan," Oxfam International and seven other aid agencies warn the emphasis on rushed, short-term projects to win over Afghan civilians fails to address Afghanistan’s deep poverty. Some of the projects also wind up becoming major security risks as they’re targeted by militant groups.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner came under a torrent of criticism Wednesday at a congressional hearing on the taxpayer bailout of the insurance giant AIG. The hearing was called following the release of emails showing the New York Federal Reserve attempted to keep secret many of the details of the AIG bailout. The Fed’s rescue of AIG remains controversial, in part because it secretly funneled nearly $70 billion to sixteen big US and European banks in what many described as a backdoor bailout. Geithner headed the New York Fed before being tapped to head the Treasury Department. Democratic Congress member Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts criticized Geithner for refusing to use the government’s enormous leverage to wring concessions from AIG.
Rep. Stephen Lynch: "You had every opportunity — every opportunity — to weigh in on behalf of the American people and make these people take a new deal, make them take a haircut. You scalped the folks on Bear Stearns — two cents on a dollar they got! Two cents on a dollar. The folks at Goldman Sachs got 100 cents on a dollar. And that is just unacceptable."
Democratic Congress member Dan Burton also criticized Geithner.
Rep. Dan Burton: "We have this bailout of AIG, and you don’t know anything about it. Mr. Geithner had nothing to do with it. It just really boggles the mind that some of the biggest people involved in this whole thing, from beginning to end, had nothing to do with it. They didn’t know. It makes you want to think that some clerk someplace was making these decisions. I don’t think anybody is going to buy that."
Geithner, meanwhile, defended the AIG bailout, claiming it was necessary to stave off widespread economic collapse.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner: "It is not true that the actions we took in AIG were for the benefit of anybody but the millions of Americans who, at that point, were suffering from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The only way to help reduce that damage, protect that damage, was to fix the system and prevent the catastrophic failure that would have made that crisis worse."
And Democrats are gearing up to try to counter the Supreme Court’s ruling that corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money to elect and defeat candidates. In a five-to-four decision, the Court overturned century-old restrictions on corporations, unions and other interest groups from using their vast treasuries to advocate for a specific candidate. Speaking on the House floor, Democratic Congress member Donna Edwards of Maryland said she’ll introduce a constitutional amendment to revoke the Supreme Court ruling.
Rep. Donna Edwards: "The American people already believe that corporate special interests and their lobbyists run the show around here. I mean, the halls are crawling with them. But that’s not enough. Now the Court says to the big banks, to the drug companies, to the insurance companies, 'Hey, all bets are off, and it's open season. Our elections are for sale.’ A law won’t fix this; we have to fix it in the Constitution. So today I’ll introduce a constitutional amendment so that we, the people, can take back our elections and our democracy. This is not the People’s House Incorporated. We are the people. It’s our house, it’s our Constitution, and it’s our elections. And we plan to take it back from the United States Supreme Court."
In his State of the Union address, President Obama renewed his criticism of the Supreme Court ruling, saying he hopes Congress passes legislation "that helps to right this wrong."