Wednesday, January 26, 2011

While fishing for laughs, Obama hooks a regional issue

He may not know his kings from his silvers or a humpy from a chum, but President Obama's mention Tuesday night of the Northwest's signature fish seems to have resonated with the public — though probably not as he'd hoped.

While many laughed at the president's comic reference to salmon in his State of the Union address, many of those familiar with our troubled seagoing species applauded, and then groaned.

During a portion of the speech dedicated to reorganizing government, Obama highlighted what sounded like government redundancies. He mentioned that 12 federal agencies deal with exports and five "entities" deal with housing.

And he followed those statements with this: "Then there's my favorite example: The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater. I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."

The line was a hit — perhaps too big a hit. When National Public Radio after the speech asked 4,000 listeners to describe in three words what they recalled from the president's hourlong address, the most frequently mentioned word was "salmon."

But Obama's description wasn't even entirely accurate. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency within Interior, manages most endangered species and owns and operates nine hatcheries in Washington. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, an agency within Commerce, runs virtually every aspect of salmon management regardless of whether they're at sea or in a river.

And if the president's point was that salmon involves more than one agency, he really missed the mark.

In truth, it's way more Byzantine than that.

"I don't think you could make a more complicated system if you tried," said Bruce Sanford, a retired state chinook biologist.

NOAA Fisheries is responsible for recovering salmon under the Endangered Species Act, but the Washington state Fish and Wildlife Department manages fishing in state waters.

There are 17 tribes just in the Puget Sound region with rights to half the catch, and several more once you get to the Columbia River.

Salmon are also dramatically affected by water levels and dams, which are run by the Army Corps of Engineers to provide electricity for the Bonneville Power Administration — except of course when they're run by the city of Seattle or another agency altogether.

And salmon need cold, clear, flowing streams to survive.

That's why state forest managers and the U.S. Forest Service in the past few decades have had to change logging practices — and why forest road crews and state and federal transportation agencies are under pressure to widen culverts.

And that's not to mention international negotiations with Canada.

Obama's comments opened his administration to easy criticism.

"Streamlining is fine," said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice. "But stream protection is what we really need."

Fishing groups cheered the mention of salmon — then used the opportunity to urge the president to tackle "the real source of government inefficiency: politics trumping science."

It's clear what Obama was really trying to say: "He used the way salmon are overseen by the government as an example of how jurisdictions can overlap," said Kenneth Baer, head of communications for White House Office of Management and Budget.

Even so, no one at this point expects a wholesale reorganization of salmon-agency jurisdiction.

David Montgomery, for one, thinks that's probably good.

"It makes for a better joke than it does an idea," said the University of Washington professor and MacArthur Award recipient, who explored the complexities of saving salmon in his award-winning 2003 book "King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon."

"It really does sound silly that we have all these different jurisdictions, but the basic problem is salmon don't stay put," he said.

Combining salmon management into fewer agencies wouldn't change the fact that on their journey from gravelly riverbeds to the ocean and back, the fish are affected by everything from climate to logging to housing development, roads, fishing and pollution.

"That still requires different science and expertise and policies that are hard to make line up in ways that don't undercut each other," he said. "But none of that means fewer people."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Five Tips for Good Financial Health

Like a balanced diet, good financial health requires discipline, good habits and a plan.
For some, financial health simply means spending less than what they make. But for others it may also include saving money for retirement or investing in something that creates wealth, like purchasing a home or opening a business.

Good financial health can include all of the above and more -- and the following tips can help you get started.

1. Create a budget
Financial experts are the first to say it: The first step towards good financial health is having a balanced budget. A good first step is to write down all of your monthly expenses and make sure that you're not spending more than what you make.
Once you have a budget:
  • Identify and eliminate nonessential expenses
  • Set aside money saved
  • Revise budget periodically to make adjustments as necessary

2. Have a plan to pay down your debt
Paying down debt is an essential part of good financial health. After all, money spent on debt is money not being saved for retirement or other investments.
The Federal Reserve has a calculator that can help you figure out how long it will take you to pay your credit cards depending on the interest rate and your monthly payments. There are also several nonprofit organizations that offer counseling if you have out of control debt.

3. Establish a long-term plan
After creating a budget and developing a plan to pay down your debts, financial experts suggest creating long-term financial goals. One of the most common of these goals is saving for retirement.
The Department of Labor suggests 10 ways to prepare for retirement, which include:
  • Getting familiar with the Social Security Retirement Plan
  • Contributing to an employer-backed pension or retirement plan, such as a 401(k), if available
  • Opening an Individual Retirement Plan, or IRA

4. Protect Your Investments
Insurance policies can help you protect your wealth. Home and auto insurance are some of the most common policies. But there are others you might consider, including disability insurance, life insurance and long-term care insurance.
Before purchasing an insurance policy:
  • Consider all your personal needs
  • Learn about insurance policies offered by your employer
  • Get at least two estimates
  • Make sure to take advantage of all available discounts

5. Write a Will
Financial planning goes beyond one's life. By writing a will, you can legally protect your property and ensure that your wealth is distributed to your survivors as you planned and with the least taxation as possible. offers some tips on how to write a will, including:
  • Clearly establishing the fact that the document is a will
  • Naming an executor of the will. This is the person who will ensure that your estate is distributed according to your wishes
  • Signing the document in front of at least two witnesses

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Obama calls for moment of silence at 11 a.m. Monday for victims of Arizona shootings

President Obama calls for flags to be flown at half-staff and a moment of 'prayer or reflection, keeping the victims and their families closely at heart.'

Obama confers with Arizona governor
President Obama talks with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in the hallway outside the Situation Room of the White House about the shootings that killed six people and injured 14 others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. (Pete Souza / The White House via Getty Images / January 8, 2011)

President Obama has ordered a moment of silence and for flags at U.S. public buildings and military facilities to be flown at half-staff for the victims of the shootings in Arizona that targeted U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the White House announced Sunday.

At 11 a.m. EST on  Monday, “I call on Americans to observe a moment of silence to honor the innocent victims of the senseless tragedy in Tucson, Ariz., including those still fighting for their lives,” Obama said in a prepared statement. “It will be a time for us to come together as a nation in prayer or reflection, keeping the victims and their families closely at heart.”

Six people, including a federal judge, were killed in the Saturday attack. Fourteen people, including Rep. Giffords, were injured.

Giffords on Sunday was listed in critical condition after brain surgery.

Obama also ordered that flags be flow at half-staff until sunset on Friday.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Obama to increase engagement with Africa in 2011

President Barack Obama is quietly but strategically stepping up his outreach to Africa, using this year to increase his engagement with a continent that is personally meaningful to him and important to U.S. interests.

Expectations in Africa spiked after the election of an American president with a Kenyan father. But midway through his term, Obama's agenda for Africa has taken a backseat to other foreign policy goals, such as winding down the Iraq war, fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and resetting relations with Russia.

Obama aides believe those issues are now on more solid footing, allowing the president to expand his international agenda. He will focus in Africa on good governance and supporting nations with strong democratic institutions.

Obama delivered that message on his only trip to Africa since taking office, an overnight stop in Ghana in 2009, where he was mobbed by cheering crowds. In a blunt speech before the Ghanaian parliament, Obama said democracy is the key to Africa's long-term development.

"That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long," Obama said. "That is the change that can unlock Africa's potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans."

The White House says Obama will travel to Africa again and the political calendar means the trip will almost certainly happen this year, before Obama has to spend more time on his re-election bid. No decision has been made on which countries Obama will visit, but deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said stops will reflect positive democratic models.

The administration is monitoring more than 30 elections expected across Africa this year, including critical contests in Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

"The U.S. is watching and we're weighing in," Rhodes said.

John Campbell, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, said the different elections give the Obama administration the opportunity to establish clear policies.

The administration "should be less willing to cut slack when those elections are less than free, fair and credible," Campbell said.

The White House can send that message right now as it deals with the disputed election in Ivory Coast and an upcoming independence referendum in Sudan, which could split Africa's largest country in two.

Rhodes said the president has invested significant "diplomatic capital" on Sudan, mentioning the referendum in nearly all of his conversations with the presidents of Russia and China, two countries which could wield influence over that Sudan's government.

When Obama stopped in at a White House meeting last month of his national security advisers and United Nations ambassadors, the first topic he broached was Sudan, not Iran or North Korea. And as lawmakers on Capitol Hill neared the December vote on a new nuclear treaty with Russia, Obama called southern Sudan leader Salva Kiir by telephone to offer support for the referendum.

White House officials believe the postelection standoff in Ivory Coast could be the model for Obama's stepped-up engagement in Africa.

The president tried to call incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo twice last month, from Air Force One as Obama returned from Afghanistan and then a week later. Neither call reached Gbagbo; administration officials believe the Ivorian leader sought to avoid contact. So Obama wrote Gbagbo a letter, offering him an international role if he stopped clinging to power and stepped down.

But Obama also made clear that the longer Gbagbo holds on, and the more complicit he becomes in violence across the country, the more limited his options become, said a senior administration official. The official insisted on anonymity to speak about administration strategy.

Rhodes said the White House understands that U.S. involvement in African politics can be viewed as meddling. But he said Obama can speak to African leaders with a unique level of candor, reflecting his personal connection to Africa and that his father and other family members have been affected by the corruption that plagues many countries there.

Officials also see increased political stability in Africa as good for long-term U.S. interests — a way to stem the growth of terrorism in east Africa and counterbalance China's growing presence on the continent.

The U.S. was caught off guard during the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen when several African countries voted with China and not the U.S., the administration official said. The official said the administration must persuade African nations that their interests are better served by aligning with the U.S.