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Attorney General Eric Holder talks with Ferguson, Mo., residents Angela Whitman (left) and Jill Richards on Wednesday at Drake's Place Restaurant about issues surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown. (MCT/Landov)

Obama's Reaction To Ferguson Raises Questions About President's Role

Aug 22, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Ferguson, Mo., has seen nearly two weeks of protests after an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. This week, a black leader stepped to help diffuse tensions. But it wasn't a civil rights spokesman or the first African-American president. It was Attorney General Eric Holder.

Some political observers are asking why Obama can't seem to speak for himself on race. Many observers argue that Holder often talks frankly about race when the president can't or won't.

Speaking at a Thursday press conference, Holder said, "This has engendered a conversation that I think we ought to have, but we can't stop at that conversation."

Earlier in the week, Holder became the highest ranking administration official to visit Ferguson. He met with Michael Brown's parents, community leaders and regular citizens. At a local diner, he explained to residents why he came to their troubled town.

"We want to help as best we can. We also want to listen," Holder said. "That's the main part of this trip. We want to hear about issues you all are dealing with and see if there are ways in which we can help."

Many black political thinkers say President Obama himself needs help connecting on this issue and that his Monday remarks on Ferguson fell flat. They say this is the moment that he needs to be "the black president," not just a president who happens to be black.

Mary C. Curtis is a contributor to The Washington Post's "She The People" column. She wants Obama to speak more personally about how law enforcement treats African-Americans.

"When he talks about black men being profiled, when he talks about a situation of unrest, he is a person who is president of the United States who has also been profiled," Curtis says.

In Ferguson, Holder shared his own stories of being profiled, explaining to young black people at a community college that he understands their uneasy relationship with police. While that event was closed to the press, in the past, an open mic hasn't stopped Holder from speaking boldly on race.

"In things racial we have always been and, I believe we continue to been, essentially, a nation of cowards," Holder said in February of 2009. He offered those remarks at a Justice Department black history month event, just days after he took office.

That kind of blunt talk is what some of the president's black supporters wish Obama would try more often.

But can he?

Comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele built a now famous series of skits around Obama's reserve. The president is played by Peele and Key serves as his official Anger Translator, Luther. At the heart of each piece is Luther's willingness to say what Obama won't.

Some observers suggest that Holder is Obama's real-life Luther. But also that Ferguson presents a unique challenge to the president.

Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University, says that conflicting narratives about Michael Brown's killing — and what happened in the streets afterward — make it tough for Obama to take a stand.

"The facts of the case have come out in a trickle," says Gillespie. "And as the facts have come out, sometimes, they have been met with a very, very tense response in Ferguson. And since the facts of the case have not been 100 percent clear, I think President Obama has been a little reticent to speak out."

Others say that's just an excuse.

"America did not vote for Eric Holder, OK? America voted for Barack Obama," says Jason Johnson, a political science professor at Ohio's Hiram College. He traveled to Ferguson to observe the protests and says having Holder appear there was good, but not enough.

"When it comes to gravitas, power and symbolism, there is no substitute for the president of the United States speaking," says Johnson.

When there were riots after the acquittal of the Los Angeles police who beat Rodney King, Johnson says people wanted to hear from President George H.W. Bush. They wanted to hear not just about the facts, but about his feelings. And they did.

"What you saw, what I saw on the TV videotape was revolting," George H.W. Bush said. "I felt anger, I felt pain. I thought, 'How can I explain this to my grandchildren?' "

Johnson believes Ferguson represents a similar crisis and that some presidential anger is appropriate. And, he insists, that's not a job Obama should delegate to the Attorney General.

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President Obama sits in a golf cart on Aug. 21 while golfing at Farm Neck Golf Club, in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on the island of Martha's Vineyard. (AP)

For Obama, August Is The Cruelest Month

Aug 22, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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President Obama returns to Washington this weekend after a two-week family vacation.

It wasn't exactly restful. The break was interrupted several times by events in Iraq and in Ferguson, Missouri.

On Wednesday, Obama raised eyebrows by hitting the golf course, minutes after delivering a tough statement on the murder of an American journalist by militants from the Islamic State.

You know it's bad is when even the French are criticizing you for taking too much time off.

French Foreign Minster Laurent Fabius was one of many who took President Obama to task this week for playing golf in the wake of journalist Jim Foley's murder. At a press briefing on Martha's Vineyard Friday, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said he wouldn't discuss the president's mindset. But Schultz added sports and leisure can be a good way to clear the mind.

"I understand that you're asking about the optics. First and foremost, the president is focused on doing his job. And I don't think anyone in this room who's been covering this or following the president for the past few weeks could deny that the president's been deeply engaged on issues both domestic and abroad."

According to a tally kept by CBS news reporter Mark Knoller, Obama will have spent a total of 140 days on vacation by the time he returns to Washington on Sunday. By comparison, George W. Bush had taken nearly three times as much vacation at the same point in his term.

There's no question it's been an awkward time to be away from the capital, with fighting in Ukraine and Gaza, as well as Iraq and Missouri. But there's never really been a relaxing August since Obama became president.

In 2009, there were angry protests over the health care bill. The next year was supposed to be "Recovery Summer." But as political advisor David Axelrod said in August 2010, unemployment remained stubbornly high.

"There are still 15 million people looking for jobs. There's still a great deal of uncertainty."

And in August 2011, brinksmanship over the budget knocked a hole in the U.S. credit rating.

"It shouldn't take the risk of default, the risk of economic catastrophe to get folks in this town to work together and to do their jobs," said Obama at the time.

Public perception of Obama's job performance has consistently suffered during the summer. Gallup pollster Frank Newport says it typically bottoms out around this time of year.

"August was his worst month through the first five years of his administration. The so-called 'summer slump,'" he said.

That's not altogether surprising. Newport notes the last two presidents, Bush and Clinton, also saw their lowest poll numbers during the summer.

"There is some possibility that since Congress is out of session and presidents go on vacation, maybe they get lower ratings because there's not much going on that would cause Americans to boost their ratings up," he said.

Obama's swoon this summer has actually been less pronounced than in previous years. But not because more people approve of the job he's doing now. It's just that he was in an even deeper slump back in January.

So far this month, the president's approval rating has averaged just 42 percent, his lowest August rating since 2011. If there's any bright side for Obama and his fellow Democrats, this long, hot summer will come to an end. And Newport notes the president's numbers have tended to rebound soon after Labor Day.

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A street market remains empty in Monrovia's West Point slum as part of quarantine measures to contain the spread of Ebola in Liberia. (AFP/Getty Images)

A Food Crisis Follows Africa's Ebola Crisis

Aug 22, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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The Liberian government delivered bags of rice, beans and cooking oil to residents of the West Point slum in Monrovia. The community has been quarantined due to the Ebola outbreak in the area.

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In the shadows of West Africa's Ebola outbreak, food shortages are starting to develop.

This time of year is traditionally the lean season in West Africa, when last year's harvest of rice or groundnuts is mostly exhausted. Until recently, people were quite hopeful about the approaching harvest this year.

"The rainfall situation was very good," says Shukri Ahmed, a senior economist with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. "We were actually developing an optimistic forecast for crop production this year."

But then came Ebola.

The first food source that disappeared from markets was "bush meat"; meat from forest animals. Some of those animals, like fruit bats, can actually carry Ebola, so governments have banned it.

Other foods have become scarce as a side effect of efforts to keep the virus from spreading.

David Mwesigwa, the FAO's acting representative in Sierra Leone, says that when governments stopped people from moving from country to country, or even from one town to another, it stopped traders from delivering food to the markets. "The primary impact has been on the mobility of most of the traders," he says.

In quarantined areas, some food markets have been shut down completely.

Sierra Leone, and to an even greater extent, Liberia, also import a lot of rice. Those imports are down, too. Ships are reluctant to dock in places affected by the epidemic.

As a result, there's less food for sale, and prices are rising. According to Mwesigwa, people in many parts of Sierra Leone are paying 40 or 50 percent more for rice and other foods. The prices of meat and fish have doubled in some places. The situation in Liberia, he says, is similar, but probably even a bit worse.

While this is already cutting the ability of people to afford adequate food, things may get even worse over the coming year. This year's harvest is also in danger because communal work arrangements have broken down.

"The Ebola came in at a time when farmers were ready to go to the field to work together, in groups," Mwesigwa says.

But people now have been advised to avoid such activities. Coming together in groups could spread the disease. So essential work like weeding the rice is not happening.

Gon Myers, the World Food Program's representative in Sierra Leone says when you take all these factors together "we think there will be a food crisis after the Ebola crisis."

Myers and Mwesigwa say that their organizations will need to start responding even while the Ebola outbreak continues.

Some food aid will be required to nourish people who've been cut off from their normal supplies of food.

But the FAO's Mwesigwa says he wants to keep food aid to a minimum. Sierra Leone, in particular, has the potential to grow a lot of food itself, and it's made great progress toward self-sufficiency since the country's civil war ended a decade ago.

Mwesigwa says international agencies can help the region's farmers get back on their feet. They can provide seeds when those are in short supply, and livestock so that people can produce more of their own meat.

That effort to rebuild food supplies, he says, probably will last at least one or two years.

See more of NPR's ebola coverage on the global health blog Goats and Soda.

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A street market remains empty in Monrovia's West Point slum as part of quarantine measures to contain the spread of Ebola in Liberia. (AFP/Getty Images)

Suicide Bombing In Iraq Kills Dozens Of Sunni Worshippers

Aug 22, 2014

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Dozens of Sunnis attending a mosque for Friday prayers have been killed in a suicide attack in Iraq's eastern Diyala province — the latest sectarian violence to hit the deeply divided country.

The Associated Press says at least 64 people were killed in the suicide bombing, which was followed up by gunmen who attacked the mosque where Sunni tribesmen who had rebuffed cooperation with Islamic State militants were attending Friday prayers.

The BBC says:

"Diyala province has seen heavy fighting in recent weeks between IS and Iraqi troops backed by Shia militiamen.

"Friday's attack took place in a village mosque south of the city of Baquba, about 120km (75 miles) from Baghdad."

The AP says it was not immediately clear who carried out Friday's attack but that Sunni lawmakers are blaming it on Shiite "militias."

Former provincial council member Ismail al-Jibouri tells NOR that there was chaos outside the mosque as gunmen refused to let families take their wounded to hospitals.

NPR's Peter Kenyon, reporting from Irbil, says the bloodshed further complicates efforts to set aside Iraq's factional divisions to face the threat posed by Islamic State fighters who have made significant strides in capturing territory from Iraqi security forces in recent months.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Washington strongly condemns the attack.

"The United States stands with the people of Iraq against this violence and will continue to support all Iraqi citizens, from all parts of the country, as they work to root out violent extremists from any sector of society and promote a religiously tolerant, diverse, and unified country, as envisioned in the Iraqi Constitution," Harf said.

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A street market remains empty in Monrovia's West Point slum as part of quarantine measures to contain the spread of Ebola in Liberia. (AFP/Getty Images)

What Would A World's Fair Look Like Today?

Aug 22, 2014

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Andrew Bennett grew up hearing his mother talk about the 1964 New York World's Fair. In 1984, she took the family to that year's fair in New Orleans. But times had changed: There was nothing there he hadn't already seen on television.

Today would be even worse. It would be all but impossible to re-create the sense of discovery his mother got from the 1964 fair.

"What made it so exotic and extraordinary is a mouse click away now," says Bennett.

There was an exhibit at the 1964 World's Fair that painted a picture of a world where industrial farming took place on the seafloor. Another displayed a device that many would find horrifying today: a machine for cutting down the rain forest to build roads.

A world's fair today would be different, says Paul Saffo, a futurist and Stanford lecturer. While the 1964 visions of the future were filled with unbridled optimism, today's version would be filled with doubt.

He says today's fair would be about questions. Instead of showcasing ways to build roads through the rain forest, the fair would ask: How do we save the forest? How can we preserve the oceans? Are we, as a species, capable of understanding how our minds work?

One way to get people to go to a world's fair today, Saffo says, would be to crowdsource it. Make it like a real-world version of Wikipedia. Today's fair might be a lot like Burning Man.

Bennett says he gets the same jolt from Burning Man that his mom got from the 1964 fair. But she isn't interested in joining him.

"She doesn't like dust," he says. "It's too far away. She doesn't like heat. She doesn't want to be away from my dad. She's got a million excuses."

For Bennett's mother, the World's Fair — the only one that mattered — happened in New York 50 years ago.

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