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A first lady who followed her own path more than precedent

When Michelle Obama considered the daunting prospect of becoming first lady, she avoided turning to books by her predecessors for guidance.

Instead, she turned inward.

“I didn’t want to be influenced by how they defined the role,” Mrs. Obama once said. She instinctively knew she had to define the job “very uniquely and specifically to me and who I was.”

That meant doing it her way: shaping the role around her family, specifically her two young daughters, and not letting her new responsibilities consume her.

Throughout her eight years, Mrs. Obama has been a powerful, if somewhat enigmatic, force in her husband’s White House. She chose her moments in the often unforgiving spotlight with great care and resisted pressure to become more engaged in the mudslinging of partisan politics.

At times, she’s been more traditional than some expected — or wanted from this first lady. At other times, she’s been eager to update stuffy conventions associated with the office.

As she navigated her way through, the woman who grew up on the South Side of Chicago discovered a talent for television and a comfort with Hollywood A-listers, haute couture and social media. And she used all of those elements to promote her causes — childhood obesity, support for military families, girls’ education — with at least some success.

When she leaves the White House next month just a few days after celebrating her 53rd birthday, Mrs. Obama will do so not just as a political figure, but as a luminary with international influence.

Friends say she charted that path largely on her own.

“What she did was she sort of listened to herself and allowed her own inner voice and strength and direction to lead her in the way that felt most authentic to her,” Oprah Winfrey told The Associated Press. “And I think watching somebody makes you want to do that for yourself.”

Let’s Move

Mrs. Obama grappled with the childhood obesity issue before becoming first lady; a doctor had warned her about her daughters’ weight.

At the White House, she decided to share her experience with the country and started by planting the first vegetable garden there in more than 60 years. That led the following year, in 2010, to the launch of her anti-childhood-obesity initiative, “Let’s Move.”

The first lady appealed to elected officials, food makers, sellers, restaurant chains and others to try to make healthy food more accessible. She lobbied lawmakers to add more fruit, vegetables and whole grains, and limit fat, sugar and sodium in the federal school lunch program.

That led to the first update to the program in decades, and for Mrs. Obama the process was akin to a crash course in Washington sausage-making. Mrs. Obama’s effort was not universally welcomed. Republicans in Congress wanted to reverse the rules. Others said Mrs. Obama was acting like the “food police.” Even the kids she wanted to help added to the backlash. Some students posted photos of lunches they found unappealing on Twitter with the hashtag (hash)ThanksMichelleObama, or simply tossed the food into the trash.

Mrs. Obama had won. But she would never again try to work closely with Congress on an issue. She chose instead to use her platform to press industry to change its ways.

It’s too early to know how Mrs. Obama’s efforts may affect childhood obesity rates long term, but advocates believe she helped change the national dialogue around healthy eating. And although incoming Republican President Donald Trump, a proud patron of McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken, has yet to comment on school meal regulations, advocates worry about the fate of Mrs. Obama’s effort under a White House and Congress that will be controlled by the GOP.

Reflecting on her childhood obesity work, Mrs. Obama said some people initially wondered why she would bother with such a “softball issue” but “now, all those challenges and criticisms are off the table.” She told talk-show host Rachael Ray that “at least we’ve become very aware as a society that this is one of our most important health issues.”

Mrs. Obama’s push to put the country on a health kick extended to exercise — and she made herself exhibit A.

To promote “Let’s Move,” the first lady often donned athletic wear and ran around with kids at sports clinics, some on the South Lawn. She twirled a hula hoop around her waist 142 times and kick-boxed in a video of the gym workout that helped tone the upper arms she showed off regularly, as in her official White House photo.

She did pushups with Ellen DeGeneres, raced in a potato sack against late-night TV’s Jimmy Fallon in the East Room and shimmied with a turnip in a brief video popular on social media — all to show that exercise can be fun.

“I’m pretty much willing to make a complete fool of myself to get our kids moving,” she once said.

Instead of going the fool’s route, Mrs. Obama turned herself into a fitness guru and a figure significantly more popular than her husband.

A role not imagined

First lady was never a position Mrs. Obama imagined for herself, given her modest upbringing, her distaste for politics and having never seen her skin color on a U.S. president and first lady.

Her early aversion to politics developed while watching her father navigate Chicago politics for his job with the city water department, and was reinforced by her husband’s pursuit of a political career. Both Obamas have said his political ambition had strained their marriage and family.

Once in the White House, Mrs. Obama vowed to protect her then 10- and 7-year-old daughters’ right to a normal childhood. She declared being “mom in chief” to Malia and Sasha as her priority, irking women who hoped the first lady might be less constrained by stereotypes.

She showed few signs of trying to push those boundaries.

Mrs. Obama was an enthusiastic White House hostess. She rarely spoke about issues that were outside of her portfolio. She crafted her public schedule around her daughters’ activities and limited her travel so she could spend time with them.

The Obamas’ parenting style — often described by both Obamas as warm, but strict — made them role models on that front, a point of pride, particularly in the African-American community.

“We have heard no Obama children drama,” said Ingrid Saunders Jones, national chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women.

Mrs. Obama didn’t really begin to open up about the historic nature of her service as the first black woman to become first lady until the end of the presidency was in sight. She mostly addressed the subject in interviews when she was asked to reflect about it, and discussed how important it was for children to see a black president and first lady.

Longtime friend and White House adviser Valerie Jarrett said Mrs. Obama was often reluctant to talk about such matters earlier because she wanted her legacy to be more than just her place in history.

“Her goal is not what she is, but what she does,” Jarrett said.

One last campaign

In the final weeks of the presidential race, Mrs. Obama set aside her distaste for politics to wage one last campaign, an ultimately futile attempt to help elect Democrat Hillary Clinton. She quickly became one of most passionate Democratic voices opposing Trump and calling him out for “bragging about sexually assaulting women” in comments caught on a 2005 video.

“I know it’s a campaign, but this isn’t about politics,” she said at a Clinton rally shown live on cable TV news, rare exposure for a first lady in a campaign. If Trump’s past words are “painful to us as grown women,” she asked, “what do you think this is doing to our children?”

It was yet another moment when Mrs. Obama again seemed to be following her path rather than precedent.

 

That New Hampshire speech…

Pipeline fight hangs over White House tribal summit

The Obama administration will soon ask federal agencies to require that treaty rights be considered in decision-making on natural resource projects, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said on Monday, hoping to avoid future conflicts with Native-American tribes such as the current one over the Dakota Access pipeline.

Jewell announced a forthcoming memorandum from President Barack Obama at a Tribal Nations Conference — the eighth and final one he will attend — that began on Monday. Leaders of more than 560 Native American tribes are discussing the environment among other issues as one of the largest Native-American protests in decades continues in North Dakota.

“Your voices are important,” Jewell said in her opening remarks to the tribal leaders’ summit, which included many youth groups. “The president gets this.”

The Interior secretary acknowledged the demonstrations by thousands of Native Americans and environmentalists against the $3.7 billion oil pipeline they say threatens the water supply and sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux. She praised the “the unprecedented solidarity” through weeks of “prayerful and peaceful assembly to make your voices heard.”

She also recognized to wide applause the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Dave Archambault, who has been the face of the demonstrations.

“What we have today is an opportunity to ask ourselves if we are doing all we can to live up to those principles of the nation-to-nation relationship,” she said.

The Justice and Interior Departments on Monday announced settlements with 17 tribes that had sued the U.S. government for allegedly mismanaging monetary assets and natural resources that the government held in trust for the tribes.

The “vast majority” of all such disputes have been settled, according to the government, which has paid $1.9 billion to resolve the cases that go back to April 2012.

Obama will address the summit Monday afternoon, though it was not clear if he would discuss the 1,100-mile (1,886-km) Dakota Access pipeline, being developed by Energy Transfer Partners.

He has not publicly commented on the pipeline since the Justice Department, Interior Department and the U.S. Army made a surprise move on Sept. 9 to temporarily block its construction.

At that time, the administration called for “a serious discussion” about how tribes are consulted by the government on decisions over major infrastructure projects.

The uproar over the Dakota Access pipeline has sparked a resurgence in Native-American activism.

The Army, Interior and Justice will hold hearings on the shortcomings of the present process on Oct. 11 and formal discussions with tribes in six U.S. regions from Oct. 25 through Nov. 21.

The deadline for written comments will be Nov. 30, the agencies announced.

On Thursday, Archambault told a House of Representatives panel there was no “meaningful consultation” before permits were issued to bring the pipeline through his tribe’s territory.

Archambault is scheduled to speak on Monday evening at a rally of pipeline opponents.

In 2016 campaigns, both parties want reform of justice system

On the campaign trail, among candidates of both parties, the idea of locking up drug criminals for life is a lot less popular than it was a generation ago.

The 2016 presidential race has accelerated an evolution away from the traditional tough-on-crime candidate. A Republican Party that’s long taken a law-and-order stance finds itself desperate to improve its standing among minority voters, and Democratic candidates are also being drawn into national conversations on policing, drug crimes and prison costs.

With criminal justice issues intruding into election season, the “Just Say No” message of the Reagan administration and the “three strikes” sentencing law developed a decade later under President Bill Clinton have given way to concerns over bloated prison costs, the racial inequities of harsh drug punishments and how police interact with their communities.

But even among those in both parties who support changing the criminal justice system, there’s no consensus on how to do it and candidates are scrambling to differentiate themselves on what law and order means.

“You don’t have everyone saying they’re tough on crime,” said Inimai Chettiar of the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, which advocates reducing prison populations. “Instead, you have people offering different policy solutions.”

The Paris attacks have at least temporarily thrust national security to the forefront of the presidential race, but criminal justice issues have been periodically popping up, particularly among Democrats, in a year of tumult in U.S. cities. In the Republican field, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has been out front in seeking to “break the cycle of incarceration for non-violent ex-offenders.”

The push to rethink sentences for drug offenders is coinciding with the Black Lives Matter movement and its debate about police treatment of minorities, a heroin crisis that’s brought renewed attention to addiction and a homicide spike in some big cities. Sometimes that mix of issues defies consistency.

Republican Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor and a former federal prosecutor, has preached treatment rather than prison for drug addicts and spoken sympathetically of a law school friend who died after getting hooked on painkillers. But when it comes to discussing policing, he accuses Democrats in Washington of “allowing lawlessness to reign” and tells law enforcement “I’ll have your back,” suggesting that the Obama administration doesn’t.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a fellow Republican, criticizes harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. But last month he voted against legislation that would have made nonviolent drug offenders eligible for shorter prison sentences, saying he was concerned it could also benefit violent felons.

And while Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has endorsed a review of the criminal code and decried “selective enforcement” of the law, he wrote in an essay for a Brennan Center book this year that drug laws had helped restore “law and order to America’s cities” and that shorter drug-crime sentences should be approached with caution.

Support for more lenient sentencing from Republican members of Congress and wealthy conservative backers such as the Koch brothers has made it easier for budget-minded presidential candidates to support sentencing policy changes. It’s not clear, though, how much benefit candidates gain from pressing the issue with average voters, said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

Some leading candidates such as Donald Trump hardly mention the issue on the campaign trail, and Ben Carson, the sole Republican participant in a recent candidate forum on criminal justice, said he was still waiting to see evidence of racial bias by police.

“The Republican primary voters are not a soft-hearted bunch when it comes to criminal justice issues, and I don’t think there are a lot of voters to be had,” Cullen said.

Democratic candidates are more unified in their embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement and of overall change to the criminal justice system.

After Baltimore’s riots in April, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner whose husband promoted a more conventional tough-on-crime stance, called the criminal justice system “out of balance” and urged an end to “mass incarceration.” More recently, she proposed lifting restrictions on getting marijuana for medical studies and said it should be reclassified by the government to allow federally sponsored research into its effects.

Her rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has called for accountability for police officers who “kill people who are unarmed” and suggested moving forward with marijuana legalization.

It’s all a big change from a generation or two ago.

“The threat of someone waging a ‘tough on crime’ campaign as their calling card is, I think, very much diminished from what we might have seen 20 years ago,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which advocates sentencing policy changes.

The “reform movement” has strong enough support, Mauer said, that it would be “difficult for a candidate to try to make hay out of it.”

It’s not clear how rising homicide rates in some cities will affect efforts to remake the criminal justice system, especially since there’s no consensus about what’s caused the trend or whether it will last. FBI Director James Comey said recently that if the trend were to continue, “we will be back to talking about how law enforcement needs to help rescue black neighborhoods from the grip of violence.”

“All lives matter too much for us to let that happen,” he said.

It also remains to be seen how campaign-trail rhetoric will translate into policy or how committed a future president will be in pushing for sentencing changes. But issues of criminal justice that in many ways were once considered local concerns are, at least for now, in play on the national level.

Hope amid hatred this July Fourth

Our national holiday this year is marked by hatred and hope.

The murders in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church were a frightening reminder of how much hatred exists in our country. A week before the massacre, The New York Times reported that a study of 384 law enforcement agencies found that 74 percent believed the greatest terrorist threat facing us comes from domestic extremists, not the Islamic State group or al-Qaida.

Militias, neo-Nazis and “sovereign citizen” groups (who reject federal, state and local authority) make up the bulk of this domestic threat. These groups harbor racist elements; the most overtly racist are neo-Nazi and skinhead groups, which have a big presence online.

It was at the website of one of these white supremacist groups that the Charleston killer filled his head with racist blather about African-Americans “raping our women” and “taking over our country.” These racist tropes date back to the days of slavery. Yet they remain potent recruiting slogans for vengeance-minded fanatics who need someone to blame for their sorry, bitter lives.

The outpouring of grief around the country combined with renewed debate about flying the Confederate flag repudiated any message the killer was trying to get across. 

Hatred, access to guns and mental health issues may all have been factors, but what is it with this young, white, male demographic? From John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, from John Hinckley to Dylan Klebold to Adam Lanza to Dylann Roof, these violent killers have predictable profiles. Are there studies being done on them? How can we identify these loose cannons before they go off?

Roof was able to buy the Glock he used to kill the nine Charlestonians with birthday money. The very day pundits were discussing that lethal purchase, Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill repealing Wisconsin’s two-day waiting period for handgun purchases, calling it an unnecessary “time tax.” How twisted by ideology do you have to be to dismiss a two-day waiting period for handguns as a “time tax”?

President Barack Obama delivered his stirring eulogy in Charleston a day after federal subsidies under the Affordable Care Act were sustained by the U.S. Supreme Court and on the day the high court ruled that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage. No wonder Obama spoke with such passion.

Justice Anthony Kennedy grounded his marriage ruling in the rights to individual liberty, due process and equal protection of the laws. The four liberal justices voted with Kennedy, reminding us again why we take pride in liberalism. Thus did a determined minority of gay men and lesbians — subject to criminal sanction, medical torture and rejection by families as few as 50 years ago — obtain redress and state recognition of their relationships. 

I spent June 26 tuning in to TV and websites to take it all in. I watched excerpts of the Charleston eulogy, crying in sorrow, and then switched to coverage of the marriage ruling, crying with happiness. 

At the end of that historic day, the beautiful image of the White House swathed in bright rainbow colors was transmitted worldwide. It was an unexpected, celebratory symbol of hope that closed a period of national tragedy. 

May the rainbow continue to be our beacon as we fight hatred with love and learn to respect the diversity and contributions of all our people.

Rhythms of everyday life, touring old Havana

In some destinations, tourist areas are located far from the rhythms of everyday life. But visitors who wander through Old Havana — Habana Vieja, as locals call it — can’t help but get a sense of how ordinary Cubans live.

You’ll see uniformed school children, street vendors selling colorful fruits and peppers from carts, clotheslines hung from patios, and small dogs sunning themselves on sidewalks. There are lines at government-run offices for phone service and banking, and bicycle taxis ferrying passengers through the narrow streets. You might hear a rooster crow, a caged songbird, salsa music or the engine of an old car roaring as it trundles past. Watch out for pipes jutting from windows: Water may pour out from housework being done inside.

Nearly every street seems to have a sign attesting to something of cultural or historic significance. O’Reilly Street, for example, named for an Irishman who became a leader in the Spanish colonies and married into a prominent Cuban family, bears a plaque with a rather poetic allusion to the histories of Ireland and Cuba: “Two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope.”

Many buildings are terribly rundown. It’s not unusual to see the sky through a roofless stone facade or piles of rubble in the street. But other sites have been beautifully restored, especially around the squares in the eastern half of the neighborhood bordering the water. Spend a few hours walking through Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas, Plaza San Francisco and Cathedral Square. Many museums and other attractions are located here, including the Museum of Rum, which offers visitors a swig at the end of the tour, and the Ambos Mundos Hotel, which has an excellent short tour of a room where Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote.

Another cluster of major attractions is located in the western half of the neighborhood, near the Prado or Paseo de Marti, a boulevard that divides Old Havana from Central Havana. The Prado itself is worth a stroll, especially on Sundays when it hosts an outdoor art market. Adjacent to the Prado is the Parque Central (Central Park), home to a statue of revolutionary hero Jose Marti. A block over, between Agramonte and Avenida de Las Misiones (Belgica), you’ll find the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, with extraordinary collections of Cuban art in one building and international art in another, and the Museo de la Revolucion, with a tank and the famous boat “Granma” used by Fidel Castro outdoors and a wall of cartoons inside called “Cretins’ Corner” mocking American presidents Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes.

Watch out for hustlers near the Parque Central. Resist all invitations from overly friendly strangers who invite you to a bar or to buy cigars. But if you need a drink, choices abound, including a trio of historic spots. Hemingway frequented El Floridita (located at Obispo No. 557) and La Boguedita del Medio (Empedrado No. 207), while Sloppy Joe’s, where the messy ground beef concoction supposedly was invented, was a setting for the movie “Our Man in Havana,” based on the Graham Greene novel about a bumbling spy.

But more enjoyable than the tourist crowds and watery mojitos at La Bodeguita are the relaxed outdoor cafes in the old squares on the other side of Habana Vieja. Nothing is lovelier than sipping a Cristal beer in Plaza San Francisco or Plaza Vieja in early evening, when the day’s heat dissipates and sweet sounds from a three-piece band playing “Guantanamera” drift across the square.

Recommendations for nation’s dietary patterns due

Dietary advice can be confusing. Is it OK to eat meat and eggs? Is fat in or out? What about grains? How much salt?

An advisory committee’s recommendations for the nation’s dietary patterns are due soon, and some advice may be changing. The committee is expected to downplay the importance of lowering cholesterol intake and may put less emphasis on eating lean meats. The panel could also tweak its recommendations on exactly how much salt is too much and put limits on sugar consumption for the first time.

Still, despite some revisions, the main advice never changes: eat more fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and eat less saturated fats, salt and sugar.

The Agriculture and Health and Human Services Departments will use the advisory committee’s report to write the final version of the 2015 dietary guidelines, due by the end of this year.

A look at the upcoming dietary guidelines, and what they mean for consumers:

WHY THEY’RE IMPORTANT

The dietary guidelines are issued every five years. The federal government uses them to set standards for school lunches and other federal feeding programs, and they serve as the basis for information on the nutrition facts panel on the backs of food packages.

They’re also used to create the government’s “My Plate” icon, which replaced the food pyramid and recommends a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy.

Doctors and nutritionists use the guidelines when giving advice, and food companies use them to make claims about their food.

EVOLVING WITH SCIENCE

The guidelines evolve as science evolves. Take cholesterol.

In December, the advisory panel said in its preliminary recommendations that cholesterol is no longer “considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.” That would be a change from previous guidelines, which said Americans eat too much cholesterol. This follows increasing medical research showing how much cholesterol is in your bloodstream is more complicated than once thought, and depends more on the kinds of fats that you eat. Medical groups have moved away from specific targets for cholesterol in the diet in recent years.

It’s unclear if the recommendation will make it into the final guidelines. Dr. Robert Eckel, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado in Denver who is a past president of the American Heart Association, says there’s not enough evidence to make good recommendations on cholesterol right now, but “no evidence doesn’t mean the evidence is no.”

People can enjoy high-cholesterol egg yolks in moderation, he advises, but “a three- to four-egg omelet isn’t something I’d ever recommend to a patient at risk for cardiovascular disease,” he says.

There’s also some new science on salt. The 2010 dietary guidelines recommend that people eat less than 2,300 milligrams a day. That is reduced to 1,500 milligrams for some people at risk of heart disease.

A 2013 report by the Institute of Medicine said that while lowering salt intake is important for heart health, there is no good evidence that eating less than 2,300 milligrams a day of sodium offers benefits. The advisory panel’s discussions hint that they may not include the lower recommendation for certain groups.

POLITICAL BATTLES

While they are based on dietary science, the guidelines aren’t immune to politics. This year, the battles have already started over meat.

Current guidelines advise that people eat lean meats as a healthy way to get protein, but the advisory panel has debated whether lean meats should be included. In addition, the draft recommendations say a healthy dietary pattern includes fewer “red and processed meats” than are currently consumed. The meat industry called the draft recommendations absurd.

The committee has also discussed the idea of including sustainability as a dietary goal. The advisory panel said in its draft recommendations that there is “compatibility and overlap” between what is good for health and what is good for the environment.

A diet higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods is “more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact than is the current average U.S. diet,” the draft recommendations said.

Environmentalists have been pushing those recommendations, while Congress is pushing back. Language attached to a massive year-end spending bill enacted in December noted the advisory committee’s interest in the environment and directed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack “to only include nutrition and dietary information, not extraneous factors” in final guidelines.

WHAT WON’T CHANGE

The “My Plate” isn’t expected to change much – the guidelines issued at the end of the year will most certainly recommend putting fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins on your plate, accompanied by low-fat dairy.

In its draft recommendations, the panel said the problem it is trying to solve is high rates of “preventable chronic disease” and obesity.

The panel said the gap is an American diet too high in sodium, saturated fat, refined grains, added sugars and calories, and too low in vegetables, fruit and whole grains.

Factors shaping the 2016 presidential race

Key factors as the 2016 presidential race begins to take shape:

DEMOCRATS’ ELECTORAL COLLEGE BASELINE: Democrats have won the same group of states worth 242 electoral votes for every election since 1992. A Democratic nominee who holds those states and adds Florida (29 electoral votes) wins, no matter what the rest of the map looks like. But it’s worth noting that Democrats haven’t won three consecutive elections since Harry Truman claimed the party’s fifth straight in 1948.

SAME OLD SWING STATES: Barack Obama’s easy wins came because he twice won an additional seven states. Besides Florida, the list includes Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire. Democrats insist that North Carolina and Georgia can be competitive, as well.

ON DEMOGRAPHICS, MARGINS MATTER: The outcome won’t just turn on how a single group – whether its women, Hispanics, white men or millennials – splits between two major candidates. It will turn on how several groups split and how many of them vote in the first place. For example, the Democratic nominee could replicate Obama’s share of the black vote from 2012. But if fewer black voters go to the polls, the nominee could still lose a state like Florida.

GOP AND WHITES: Republican Mitt Romney won white voters in 2012 by as large a margin as any Republican since President Ronald Reagan’s re-election romp in 1984. But it wasn’t enough, as whites cast just more than 7 out of 10 total ballots, compared with almost 9 out of 10 as late as 1992. Republicans say Romney didn’t hit the ceiling with whites. They point to his struggle to connect with working-class voters and Obama’s struggle among whites, particularly those without a college degree. That latter group is critical to GOP hopes in Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire.

DEMS NON-WHITE ADVANTAGE: Republicans aren’t banking on winning Asians, Hispanics or African-Americans. But they believe they can cut into the overwhelming margins Obama compiled in 2008 and 2012. The non-white vote could tip Florida, and it could close the gap in Colorado and Virginia. Republicans acknowledge that the tone of the immigration debate on Capitol Hill and in the GOP presidential primaries will play a strong role in shaping the Latino vote in particular.

MILLENNIALS AND ECONOMY: Democratic pollsters say the millennial generation, which will account for nearly all 2016 voters under age 35, remains decidedly liberal on social and economic policy. But Republicans see an opening with widespread economic insecurity across the group.

CANDIDATES STILL MATTER: For all the chatter, players on both sides admit that nominees shape the race. So a Democrat like Hillary Rodham Clinton could reclaim white baby boomers who never voted for Obama, while a Republican like Jeb Bush could attract Latino support that Romney never could.

We must overcome voter apathy

The midterm elections and their aftermath show the extent to which our democracy is failing. In the primary races leading up to Nov. 4, a record low of only 7 percent of Americans said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress. Yet nearly all incumbents survived their primary challenges.

Voters’ frustration is understandable. The 113th Congress will probably end up having passed fewer bills than any in history. With partisan wrangling rather than lawmaking now the goal of our elected officials, it seems to make little difference who’s in charge.

The Nov. 4 elections further demonstrated how checked out voters are. Turnout was the lowest in 72 years, despite the $4 billion spent on political advertising, according to Center for Responsive Politics. Of course, the advertising itself might have turned off voters. The money was spent mostly by special-interest groups on advertising that was misleading and/or focused on matters of little to no consequence.

In the aftermath of the election, political gamesmanship went winto higher gear than ever. Frustrated with gridlock and facing stronger Republican opposition in Congress, President Barack Obama issued an executive order addressing immigration reform, which the GOP has held up for six years solely for political reasons. Republicans responded by renewing their vow to continue doing everything in their power to punish the president by holding up his appointments.

No one who watches Congress can help but conclude that our legislative branch has become a useless forum of childish egos and transparent one-upmanship rather than a forum for conducting the people’s business. 

But for the one percent to whom lawmakers are actually accountable, the “gridlock” is working quite well. It maintains the status quo, which is structured to serve their interests.

In that light, voter apathy is understandable: Neither party has incentive to drain the swamp.

Still, the only way to save the government of “we the people” is to involve the people. Today’s citizens seem more interested in Monday Night Football than in their children’s futures. They haven’t considered the consequences of not having a responsive and responsible government, even as they live through those consequences on a daily basis. The more our quality of life erodes, the more the public binge-watches streaming video. 

The only hope for change is an informed and engaged electorate, one that looks beyond political agendas and demands real solutions to our potentially apocalyptic problems — problems such as growing income inequality, a disintegrating planet, a failing educational system and the spread of radical militancy.

Make it one of your New Year’s resolutions to become informed and engaged. Rather than checking out, tune in. Search for the truth under the spin. Take some time to learn the positions of your elected officials and question them. Visit sites such as votesmart.org that let you know — without commentary — how your representatives vote, how different interest groups rate them and who their major donors are.

Ultimately, the greatest threats to our future are our ignorance and apathy. The good news is that we have the power to overcome both.

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Wacky weed: Getting into the cannabis business

Legal or not, the business of selling weed in the U.S. is as wacky as ever.

The tangle of rules and regulations that govern whether and how it can be grown, bought and sold create complexity and ambiguity that cause major headaches for marijuana businesses — and enticing opportunities for those who want to exploit it.

“It’s a gray market industry, that’s just how it is,” says Kayvan Khalatbari, who owns a marijuana dispensary and a chain of pizza restaurants in Denver.

The big issue: the nation hasn’t decided whether marijuana is a dangerous illegal drug or not much worse than tobacco or alcohol. According to federal law, it is an illegal narcotic like heroin, with “no currently accepted medical use.” But recent legalization pushes have made it legal – for medical use – in 23 states and Washington D.C. In Colorado and Washington State, it can be bought just for fun.

Entrepreneurs and investors have to navigate laws that are different from state to state and sometimes from county to county. That has given rise to a bumper crop of consultants promising to show the way to success, while shady public companies spin visions of fat profits. Consumers now have an array of new pot-related products to choose from, many of far higher quality than what’s offered on the corner. But they must also discern truth from hope in the many claims about all the supposedly wonderful things pot can do.

ENTREPRENEURS

Khalatbari started his first pizza restaurant with a small business loan from a bank. To raise money to build a marijuana-growing facility, a bank loan wasn’t an option.

Almost all banks avoid working with pot businesses because pot is illegal federally, and banks want to avoid running afoul of anti-trafficking laws. Also, residency restrictions in Colorado prevent raising money from out-of-state investors in exchange for a share of the company, which is exactly what most investors want.

So, to build a 40,000 square-foot growing facility, Khalatbari teamed with an out-of-state investor who paid for construction while trying to establish residency in Colorado. When that comes through, the investor could get an ownership stake in the facility.

Khalatbari says there’s plenty of investor money sloshing around, looking to fund marijuana businesses, but the terms are expensive because of the risk and the restrictions.

“It’s almost impossible not to get funding,” he says, “but it’s not going to be on the terms you want.”

Once up and running, entrepreneurs face more twists. Khalatbari kept his bank account in the name of a management company instead of his marijuana dispensary, called Denver Relief. He was careful not to pay pot-related vendors out of the account, instead using cash, which is common in the pot business. And he didn’t make cash deposits over $10,000 in order to avoid triggering suspicious activity inquiries. Still, three successive banks dropped him after learning the management company had ties to pot.

“We can’t be honest and open about where we can put our legal money,” he says. “They are pushing us underground.”

He has recently found an unidentified bank that will work with him and a few other pot businesses.

Khalatbari can’t write off certain expenses the way most businesses can. The Internal Revenue Service prohibits deductions for expenses incurred while selling what the federal government considers to be an illegal drug. That makes his profit lower than it otherwise would be. It also encourages him and other sellers to designate, for tax purposes, only a small portion of their stores as having anything to do with selling pot.

These conditions can help a business flourish once it’s open, however. Would-be competitors face the same hurdles to getting started – local zoning rules, state regulations, financing complexity or a slow bureaucracy – so it can often be some time before the established business faces a real challenge.

California rules are relatively lax, and there are believed to be at least 500 dispensaries just in Los Angeles. But Connecticut has approved only six dispensaries. The first opened last month – without pot – two years after getting approval. Illinois growing facilities must put up a $2 million surety bond to get approval. Washington has awarded 43 licenses to sell marijuana for recreational use – and just one in Seattle, called Cannabis City.

Khalatbari has plenty of competition, but the profit margin at his marijuana dispensary is 60 percent higher than at the pizza restaurants. Even after the legal headaches, it’s easier to make a profit selling the bud of a plant for $200 an ounce than it is selling a meat lover’s pizza (pepperoni, spicy sausage, Canadian bacon and mozzarella) for $19.99.

“It’s much higher-risk,” he says of the marijuana business. “But the reward is much greater.”

CONSULTANTS

“Everyone wants to be in the weed business,” says Adam Bierman, managing partner at a marijuana consulting company based in Culver City, California, called the Med Men.

That suits Bierman just fine. Dozens if not hundreds of consultants like Bierman have popped up, feeding off the complexity of the marijuana business and the desire of so many to make it big in pot. Some act as matchmakers, promising to connect investors with entrepreneurs looking for money. Others sell help navigating the licensing process, tips on how best to grow marijuana, or advice about how to manage a startup that must operate outside of the banking system.

But many of these “consultants” have little or no experience in the business. Bierman acknowledges he didn’t when he started six years ago. “We got our teeth kicked in,” he says.

Now his firm knows the ropes, he says, but the industry is crawling with people who don’t.

“There are a lot of opportunistic people coming into this industry from every angle,” he says. “And unfortunately we are part of that. We are one of the companies I’m blasting, and I hate that.”

In February, PetroTech Oil and Gas – a drilling services company – announced it was establishing a management company in Colorado and Washington to help pot growers. Trading volume in the tiny company’s stock rose 13-fold and the penny stock rose to 7 cents per share over three weeks. The Securities and Exchange Commission suspended trading in the stock in March over questions about the accuracy of the information about the company’s operations.

INVESTORS

Investing in the pot business seems like it should be as easy as printing money. The product’s millions of users are so dedicated that they’ve been willing to risk arrest to get it. To reach them, all businesses have to do is grow a weed and sell the flowers.

Pot investing is treacherous, though, even for professionals.

“There are a lot of large egos and puffery in this industry,” says Brendan Kennedy, a former Silicon Valley banker who helped found Privateer Holdings, a marijuana-focused private equity firm. “It takes a lot of time and energy to sort through the hyperbole and find the right, legitimate opportunities.”

Every new pot company thinks it has the best growing technique or marijuana strain, Kennedy says, but few have worked out a long-term business plan that coldly assesses the market and the risks. Growing plants for profit isn’t quite so simple.

“Ultimately it’s a crop, it’s a commodity, not very different from a lot of agricultural products that are out there,” Kennedy says. “Would you invest in a winery? Or a strawberry grower?”

Investing in pot stocks is even scarier, because nearly all of them are so-called penny stocks, like PetroTech, that trade outside of major exchanges. There are now a couple dozen of these companies, often with names that play on marijuana’s scientific name, cannabis sativa, such as Advanced Cannabis Solutions or Cannabusiness Group. But many have tenuous ties to the marijuana industry, regulators say.

Canadian regulators issued a warning about marijuana-related stocks in June, following similar alerts from the U.S. Financial Industry Regulatory Authority last year and one from the SEC in May. Five times this year the SEC has suspended trading in shares of companies claiming to be in the marijuana business.

Kennedy says the penny stock companies “are full of charlatans and hucksters,” who are “purely playing on the desire of Main Street investors to get into the industry.”

One of the companies targeted by the SEC, called GrowLife, makes urban gardening equipment and trades under the ticker symbol PHOT. An October report designed to look like it was issued by a Wall Street firm suggested the company’s stock was poised to rise nearly 300 percent. But that “research” was actually paid for by GrowLife – a detail found only in the report’s fine print.

GrowLife’s shares soared 900 percent, to 60 cents from 6 cents, between October and early April, when trading was halted by the SEC. In June the company revealed that the $37 million loss it reported for the first quarter was actually double that, $74 million. GrowLife shares have since fallen back to 7 cents.

GrowLife CEO Marco Hegyi says the report “was never intended to boost the stock” and that legalization efforts boosted shares of GrowLife and other marijuana companies. Hegyi, who became CEO in March, says the company is working to improve its financial reporting. “We’re more on top of our business,” he says.

CONSUMERS

A decade ago, pot consumers risked jail time by buying pot of uncertain origin and quality in back-alley deals. Now, in many states, they can shop openly for a wide variety of strains with different levels of potency. Pot can be bought in lotions, foods and drinks with precise doses.

But buyers still need to beware. Companies are using pot’s new legitimacy to try to equate getting high with taking care of your body or curing any number of ailments, making extraordinary health claims about pot to push their products.

“Because it’s a drug that makes people feel good, marketers want to put medical claims on it,” says Bill London, a professor of public health at California State University in Los Angeles and a health claim watchdog. London has no problem with legalization, but says many medical claims for marijuana “are false or exaggerated” and “should not be tolerated.”

The website Cannabis.org, started by GrowLife and carries the tagline “Cannabis is Medicine,” lists 17 major diseases that cannabis can treat, including Alzheimer’s, cancer, and diabetes.

Some of the chemicals in marijuana have been tested thoroughly and found to effectively treat some conditions, such as reducing nausea and stimulating appetite in patients undergoing chemotherapy. These or other chemicals in pot may someday be found to be effective in treating other diseases – or they could be found to be dangerous in ways not yet understood. Scientists simply don’t know yet.

A Colorado company called Dixie Elixirs sells pot in pill form called “scrips” – short for “prescription.” These pills allow users to manage both their ups and downs, despite the same amount of pot in each pill, with additives like ashwagandha root. “Awakening Scrips” are said to provide a “stimulating sensation,” while “Relaxing Scrips” are said to “reduce mental and physical stress and promote relaxation.”

Joe Hodas, chief marketing officer at Dixie Elixirs, says the company is careful to not make specific medical claims about its products. “It’s the regulatory framework that forces businesses to sell (marijuana) as medicine because that’s the only way it’s legal (in most states),” he says.

In a marketing pitch for one pot-based product, called Foria, a woman identified as “Anna, 29” says: “Foria is potent medicine and the most healing way I have ever used cannabis.” It’s not clear that Anna had a medical problem, though. The product is a pot-based lubricant for women, designed to increase sexual pleasure by delivering a high through their private parts.

Boy Scouts oust scoutmaster who came out on NBC News

The nation’s largest gay civil rights group is calling on the Boy Scouts of America to end its longstanding discriminatory ban on gay adults in Scouting after BSA leaders revoked the membership of an openly gay scoutmaster in Washington state when he came out in an NBC News profile.

Geoff McGrath, 49, leader of Troop 98 in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood, is believed to be the first gay adult to have his membership in the Boy Scouts of America revoked since last May’s controversial vote by the BSA to allow gay youth — but not adults — to participate in the organization.

McGrath was being profiled by NBC News. BSA leaders said he was “making an issue” out of his sexual orientation.

“Banning a caring scoutmaster who has dedicated his time and efforts to helping young men grow into adults of integrity is a moral outrage,” said Jeremy Pittman, deputy field director with the Human Rights Campaign and also an Eagle Scout. “Parents and adults of good moral character, regardless of sexual orientation, should be able to volunteer their time to mentor the next generation of Americans.”

The BSA sent a letter to McGrath that to the HRC sounded like the old defense of the now-defunct “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the U.S. militry. The letter said that if  “a volunteer makes an issue out of his or her sexual orientation – especially to the youth we serve –  then that volunteer is no longer eligible for to be a registered leader. That has been part of the adult leadership qualifications for many years.”

McGrath is not the first gay person to be ousted as a scoutmaster, but he is believed to be the first since the BSA’s new policy allowing gay boys to participate went into effect.

Two years ago, Jennifer Tyrrell launched an online petition calling on the Boy Scouts of America to end its national ban after she was ousted as her son’s den leader because she is a lesbian.

That campaign fueled a national drive that many people say helped sway the BSA leadership to change its policy for boys.

It also led a number of groups and companies to withdraw support from the BSA because of its continued discrimination.

HRC, meanwhile, has a new requirement in its corporate equality index. To receive a perfect score, companies have to “prohibit philanthropic giving to non-religious organizations that have a written policy of anti-gay discrimination, or permit its chapters, affiliates or troops to do so.”