If confirmed, the North Carolina congressman and former Black Caucus chair will run a key housing-regulatory agency.
(The Root) -- On Wednesday, President Obama will announce his intent to nominate Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) to direct the Federal Housing Finance Agency, a White House official told The Root.
FHFA was created on July 30, 2008, when President Obama signed into law the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008. If confirmed, Watt will lead the agency's mission to supervise and regulate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
In addition to being a former Congressional Black Caucus chairman, during his 20 years in Congress Rep. Watt has held senior positions on the House Financial Services and House Judiciary committees. He played a key role in passing the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and has co-sponsored various versions of the Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act.
Watt has pressed for better access to mortgage loans for minority and low-income consumers. When his name surfaced last month as a potential nominee, the Wall Street Journal reported that he was known for "telling former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner two years ago that a position paper outlining options for the mortgage-finance system placed too much emphasis on renting" and not enough on home ownership. Later that year, Watt voted against a bill that would have cut salaries for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac executives, arguing that it would have been "penalizing the wrong people" and would have risked the loss of qualified talent to other entities.
President Obama, whom some have criticized for lack of racial diversity among his selections for Cabinet posts and other senior-level positions, nominated Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Anthony Foxx on Monday to head the Department of Transportation. Watt's nomination comes on the heels of that announcement and may help to blunt such criticism.
The announcement will take place at the White House on Wednesday.
Anthony Foxx becomes the first black nominee for a second-term Cabinet post.
(The Root) -- After months spent trying to assuage concerns that President Obama's second-term Cabinet was shaping up to be about as diverse as a Republican National Convention, the administration reached a major diversity milestone on Monday. The president formally nominated Anthony Foxx, the mayor of Charlotte, N.C., to become the new transportation secretary. Foxx becomes the first African American nominated to a Cabinet post during the president's second term.
As The Root has previously reported, the president's White House staff is extremely diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and gender, but in recent months the president appears to have struggled to construct a Cabinet that reflects a similar measure of diversity.
Though it was widely rumored that United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who is African American, would be nominated for secretary of state, she withdrew herself from consideration. Her withdrawal, sparked by conservative furor over her remarks related to the Benghazi, Libya, tragedy, made her a symbol of the administration's diversity struggles. It was noted by frustrated progressives that white males were nominated and confirmed to a number of key posts. Former Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry became secretary of state, while former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel became secretary of defense.
Since that time, the president has seemed to directly address such critical headlines as "Obama's Cabinet Shaping Up to be a Boys' Club." He has nominated a number of women to key roles within the administration, including Sally Jewell, who recently became secretary of the interior; Gina McCarthy, who has been nominated to head the Environmental Protection Agency; and Julia Pierson, the first woman ever to head the U.S. Secret Service.
But all of these women are white.
New York Rep. Charles Rangel spoke for many progressives of color when he summed up the Cabinet's racial-diversity problems as "embarrassing as hell." If confirmed, Foxx would become the third African American transportation secretary. He was preceded in that distinction by Rodney Slater, who served in the role in the Clinton administration, and William Thaddeus Coleman Jr., who served in the Ford administration.
The nomination marks a somewhat meteoric political rise for Foxx (a 2012 The Root 100 honoree), who became mayor of a major city before the age of 40. Now 41, he is poised to become one of the youngest Cabinet members Obama has had. Secretary Kerry is 69, Secretary Hagel is 66 and Secretary Jewell is 58.
At a press conference officially introducing Foxx to Americans, President Obama cited Foxx's leadership in investing in transportation while mayor as a testament to his qualifications for the role of transportation secretary. The president elaborated, saying that outgoing Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood had advised the president that having positive relationships with mayors and governors "is essential" to being transportation chief. Of Foxx the president said, "He's got the respect of his peers, mayors, governors all over the country."
Foxx is not the first member of his family to serve a president. President Obama disclosed during the press conference that Foxx's grandmother, who was in attendance, worked in the White House in the Truman administration, though he did not detail what her role was. As the president further acknowledged Foxx's family members, he thanked the mayor's "two good-looking kids," a moment noteworthy because the same compliment sparked controversy when the president applied it to current California Attorney General Kamala Harris.
Although Foxx's nomination represents a significant breakthrough in terms of diversity in his second-term Cabinet, the president still has a way to go before matching the diversity of his first, which included African Americans (Eric Holder as attorney general, a position he still holds), Latinos (Hilda Solis as secretary of labor and Ken Salazar as secretary of the interior), Asian Americans (Eric Shinseki as secretary of veterans affairs and Steven Chu as secretary of energy) and a number of women (Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of health and human services and Janet Napolitano as secretary of homeland security) in key senior Cabinet posts.
Ironically, in the eyes of some, Foxx could represent a minor diversity setback for the administration -- political diversity, that is. A Democrat, Foxx is replacing a Republican. But in his remarks, Foxx indicated that he wanted to continue the tone of bipartisanship for which LaHood's tenure has been notable. LaHood credited his long-standing friendship with President Obama as key to his decision to take the role, and their shared commitment to bipartisanship as instrumental in their shared successes.
Foxx said that roads and rails are not "Democratic" or "Republican," adding, "We must work together."
A new approach to drug policy could signal the end of the drug war.
(The Root) -- On Wednesday the Obama administration unveiled a new strategy for its drug policy. The location of the rollout was noteworthy. It took place at Johns Hopkins University, located in Baltimore, a city so ravaged by the effects of drugs that it served as the backdrop to the hit television show The Wire, which chronicled the impact of drug crime on a community.
But also noteworthy is the Obama administration's new softer tone, particularly on the issue of marijuana. It appears that the administration may finally be ready to put the so-called drug war to bed and replace it with a much more commonsense drug policy focused on rehabilitation, not incarceration.
According to the White House website, "Recently, there have been increasing efforts to legalize marijuana. The Obama administration has consistently reiterated its firm opposition to any form of drug legalization." The website goes on to explain: "Legalization would further burden the criminal justice system." But during a call with reporters, Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, signaled that the administration's approach to marijuana going forward would deprioritize criminalization. This is particularly significant because as states like Colorado have legalized marijuana use and sales, the attorney general and federal prosecutors have faced increasing pressure from critics to prosecute those who adhere to such laws, which, while legal at the state level, violate federal statute.
Although the president has previously gone on the record as saying that law enforcement has "bigger fish to fry" than targeting cannabis users, Kerlikowske elaborated, telling The Root that on the issue of marijuana, there is "middle ground" in terms of approach and policy. "What we've tried to do very strongly through this administration is to approach the drug problem not as a war on drugs and not as an arrest policy but neither as a legalization policy," he said. "We know that from a public health approach, legalizing drugs, thereby making them much more easily and widely available, would not be a very wise policy. But we also don't think that people -- particularly those that are possessing small amounts of marijuana -- that having an arrest record, that being put into the system, is particularly helpful either."
This acknowledgment -- that marijuana can, in fact, uproot lives and land individuals in the criminal-justice system -- is an important one, which up until now the White House has downplayed. According to the White House website:
Most people whose only crime is marijuana possession do not go to prison. A survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that 0.7 percent of all state inmates were behind bars for marijuana possession only (with many of them pleading down from more serious crimes). Other independent research has shown that the risk of arrest for each "joint," or marijuana cigarette, smoked is about one arrest for every 12,000 joints.
But because of New York's aggressive stop-and-frisk policy, marijuana laws have had a disproportionately negative impact on the lives of young men of color in the city. In his last State of the City address, Mayor Michael Bloomberg himself displayed an evolution on this issue, saying that individuals will no longer be held overnight by police for being found with small amounts of marijuana. Instead, he expressed support for a statewide effort to see such possession treated as a simple violation, not a misdemeanor.
Kerlikowske pointed to New York as an example of finding a "middle ground" on this issue. Other highlights of the Obama administration's new strategy include expanding programs like Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment, or SBIRT -- which, according to the White House, "can help reduce adverse health and safety consequences from substance use"; and ensuring that the Affordable Care Act is implemented in a way that benefits those struggling with substance abuse. The act mandates that for the first time in history, insurers must cover substance-abuse treatment.
But perhaps the most significant component of the new strategy is that the White House is making a commitment to work to reform laws and restrictions that penalize drug offenders by limiting their employment, housing and educational prospects. (As The Root covered previously, students convicted of drug offenses can lose federal financial aid.)
President Obama has been credited with being open-minded enough to evolve on important issues throughout his tenure as an elected official, most notably on same-sex marriage, which he now supports. But with the African-American community being disproportionately affected by drug-related arrests and incarceration, many wonder just how much he will evolve on this issue, particularly since he has acknowledged experimenting with drugs in his youth. His administration's new strategy represents a step. It remains to be seen if he will undergo a full-fledged evolution on drug decriminalization before leaving office.
Political dynasties are not necessarily good for America.
(The Root) -- Largely overlooked amid the wall-to-wall coverage of the Boston terror attacks was some intriguing and potentially important political news. Former President George W. Bush weighed in on speculation regarding his brother former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's presidential prospects, saying that he hopes his sibling runs for the nation's highest office in 2016.
If Bush runs, it is unlikely that he will be the only familiar name on the ballot. It is widely believed that former first lady-turned-Senator-turned-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will also run. This means that regardless of political party, the White House could soon be occupied by a familiar name and family. 2016 might just end up feeling a bit like a flashback from A Christmas Carol -- except, instead of all of us taking a stroll down memory lane to revisit Christmases past, we'll be visiting elections past.
Here's a question for American voters: Are political dynasties actually good for America?
One of the core principles that are supposed to distinguish America from monarchy-ruled countries in Europe is that in America, political power is supposed to be earned, not inherited. Yet from the earliest days of our country's existence, political power has been concentrated among already powerful families. The earliest example is the Adams family. John Adams served as the country's first vice president and second president, while his son John Quincy Adams served as the country's sixth president.
It would be more than a century before this feat would be repeated, with George H.W. Bush serving as the nation's 41st president and his son George H.W. Bush becoming the nation's 43rd president. But throughout history, there have been countless sons, daughters and spouses succeeding their mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts into state legislatures and Congress.
Within the Bush family, Prescott Bush, the first President Bush's father, served in the U.S. Senate. Barbara Bush, the former first lady and mother of the second President Bush, is descended from Franklin Pierce, the 14th president of the United States. In addition to Jeb Bush's possible presidential run, his son George Pierce Bush is running for office in Texas.
The most comparable Democratic counterpart to the Bushes is the Kennedy family. The Kennedys count one president (John F. Kennedy), one attorney general (Robert F. Kennedy), three senators (John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Edward Kennedy) and three congressmen (Patrick Kennedy, Joseph Kennedy II and his son Joseph Kennedy III), one lieutenant governor (Kathleen Kennedy Townsend) and two ambassadors (family patriarch Joseph Kennedy, who served as ambassador to England in Franklin Roosevelt's administration, and his daughter Jean, who was an ambassador to Ireland during the Clinton administration).
According to reports, the family could soon count another. It is rumored that the Obama administration is considering nominating John F. Kennedy's daughter, Caroline Kennedy, ambassador to Japan. The family also includes one mayor: John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, President Kennedy's maternal grandfather, who served as mayor of Boston and is the earliest prominent political figure in the family's history.
A few of America's other notable political dynasties include the Landrieus of Louisiana (who include two New Orleans mayors and one senator), the Hutchinsons of Arkansas (one congressman and one senator), the Pryors of Arkansas (two senators), the Meeks of Florida (two members of Congress), the Kilpatricks of Michigan (one congresswoman and one mayor), the Carnahans of Missouri (two congressmen, a governor and a senator), the Gores (two senators, one who became vice president) and the Udall family, which includes multiple members of the Senate, the House, city councils and various other offices spanning both major political parties over more than a century.
And let's not forget the Romneys. 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is the son of former Michigan Gov. George Romney and Senate candidate Lenore Romney.
In addition, at least 18 American women have been elected to the House or the Senate to fill seats left vacant by the deaths of their husbands. This is such a common political practice worldwide that such elections and appointments have a term: widow's succession.
Although children of privilege cannot help the circumstances into which they are born -- any more than those of us who are not born into privilege can -- and therefore deserve to be considered on their merits just like the rest of us, the fact that they are so overrepresented in government means that they probably aren't being judged on their merits like the rest of us. But that's not the greatest travesty.
The fact that our political system is dominated by so many people of privilege is cause for concern because it means that even if our elected officials represent racial and gender diversity, they still aren't really that diverse. Ultimately, people of privilege and power have plenty in common -- certainly more in common with one another than with those of us who don't enjoy much privilege or power.
I've often wondered what would have happened in a presidential debate between John Kerry and George W. Bush or George W. Bush and Al Gore if the moderator had presented a FAFSA form (the form families fill out to obtain college financial aid) and asked any of the men to identify it. Considering that all three men were from families who didn't require financial aid to subsidize their educations -- and hadn't for a generation or two -- I doubt that any of them would have been able to identify the form. And that's the problem.
Both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush have the academic and political smarts to be effective candidates and competent presidents. (Whether you actually agree with them on the issues is another matter.) What is debatable is whether or not both of them possess something that Barack Obama did when he ran for office: the knowledge of what it's like to make career decisions based on whether or not you will be able to pay off your student-loan debt someday, or knowing what it's like to lose a parent because of substandard health care, and because your family couldn't afford anything better.
This kind of firsthand knowledge of what life is like for average Americans is something you can't pick up by reading a briefing book or just talking to voters on the campaign trail. So does this mean that Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton shouldn't be allowed to run? No. They both have plenty of respectable experience that would legitimately qualify them for the presidency. But it might be nice if they publicly acknowledged that no one should consider voting for their children until those children demonstrated some actual experience and qualifications, too, experience that extends beyond simply having the right last name.
Otherwise, we might as well brace ourselves for "Bush vs. Clinton: the Rematch" in 2028. In addition to George Pierce Bush's foray into politics, in a recent interview, Chelsea Clinton hinted that she might run for office someday.
How he handles the fallout from the Boston Marathon attacks will help shape his legacy.
(The Root) -- Wars and tragedies have a tendency to define a presidency, fairly or not. Lyndon B. Johnson's disastrous handling of the Vietnam War ultimately overshadowed his extraordinary advancement of civil rights. President Franklin Roosevelt's status as one of America's most beloved presidents was solidified with his leadership during World War II. President George W. Bush's response to the Sept. 11 attacks, including launching unpopular dual wars, made him one of the least popular presidents on record when he left office.
With this week's Boston terror attacks, Barack Obama now faces one of the greatest tests of his presidency. How he responds in the weeks and months to come will largely shape his long-term legacy. His presidency has already seen more tragedy than many others. Five of the worst gun massacres in U.S. history have taken place since President Obama took office.
But this week is different.
While the Newtown, Conn., massacre, in which schoolchildren and staff were murdered by a deranged gunman, united Americans in tragedy, it immediately divided us politically over the issue of gun control. That divide has become particularly pronounced in recent days, as the Senate voted down a measure to expand background checks (which nearly 90 percent of Americans support) and as a member of Congress faced death threats for her gun control advocacy.
But the Boston attacks have, for now, united us in more universal ways: in support of the victims and the city of Boston as a whole, and in support of being Americans -- regardless of our political parties and any of the other labels we usually use to divide one another.
Now that we are one for this brief moment, the question becomes how the president will leverage this unity in his leadership. President Bush leveraged it into two wars -- wars that even members of his own party denounced. With the investigation into the Boston culprits and their motives ongoing, it is far too early to predict what type of policy fallout there may be from this tragedy. But it is not too early to predict that whatever that fallout may be, it will have a lasting impact on America, much as 9/11 has.
But it will also largely define the legacy of the first black president.
After a first term spent being weighed down by the pettiness that has come to define Washington, including attacks on his character, his race and even his family, President Obama got a powerful reminder of what is really important this week. Here's hoping that he and his supporters, as well as his critics, don't forget that reminder anytime soon.
Here's hoping that President Obama, who has spent a week serving as our comforter in chief, effortlessly rises to the occasion and gives America the commander in chief it needs during this dark time and in the days ahead. We, as Americans, need him to. His speech in honor of the victims, in which he said with conviction, "We will finish the race," gives me hope that he will.
After a week filled with such terror and tumult, hope is all we can really hold on to.