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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Combative Obama Unveils Classic Liberal Agenda in State of the Union Address

President Barack Obama, buoyed by a string of electoral and political victories, gave an aggressive State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress last night. Discussing the economy, climate change, early-childhood education, gun violence, voting rights, and foreign policy, his tone was combative as he made his case for a classic left-leaning agenda, vowing to fight for “a growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs” and a “a rising, thriving middle class.” He introduced what he called a “Fix-It-First program” that would employ people to repair damaged infrastructure such as roads and bridges, also calling on private capital to improve ports, pipelines and schools. On global warming, he dismissed deniers and warned Congress he will take action if they don’t. ”We can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late,” Obama said. “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.” He also promised to tie the federal minimum wage to the cost of living at $9 an hour, higher than in any state but Washington. In the Republican response to the speech, rising star Senator Marco Rubio from Florida criticized “big government” using the same ideas upon which his party fought the 2012 campaign.

Obama’s Nominee for Treasury Lew Faces Senate Committee

Jacob “Jack” Lew, President Barack Obama’s nominee for Treasury Secretary, confidently fielded questions today from the Senate Finance Committee. In opening remarks, Lew stressed his experience as a skilled negotiator, able to work both with Democrats and Republicans, adding he played a role in “almost every major bipartisan budget agreement over the last 30 years.” The senators pressed him on tax reform, indicating it would be a main element of their agenda and suggesting they expected Lew to take a leadership role. “I would pledge to work with the committee to get it done,” Lew replied. The committee also asked him about his former job and compensation as a Citigroup executive, as well as his investment in a fund based in the Cayman Islands which he disclosed and lost money on before taking a government job. “Frankly I think you’ve done really well today, and I have a great deal of respect for you,” said Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, one of his main critics.

Iran Upgrades Uranium-Enriching Machines

Iran announced today it is in the process of installing new-generation uranium-enriching machines, a step that may accelerate the production of the material that could be used in nuclear bombs. The news came as the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began new negotiations with the Islamic nations to gain access to information that would confirm whether the program is, as the Iranian government has repeatedly stated, for medical and power-generation purposes, or if it is hostile. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s top negotiator in those discussions, said today “some differences were resolved and agreement on some issues in the modality was reached.”

U.S., EU Open Free-Trade Agreement Talks

Waiting until after U.S. President Barack Obama announced it in his State of the Union address, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso confirmed the U.S. and the European Union (EU) will be working on a free trade deal. “A future deal between the world’s two most important economic powers will be a game-changer, giving a strong boost to our economies on both sides of the Atlantic,” Barroso said in Brussels. “Together, we will form the largest trade zone in the world.” The two pledged to complete the negotiations within two years, a challenging timeline given how complicated trade talks can be. “This could both dramatically increase jobs and growth in the U.S. as well as in Europe,” said Assistant to the U.S. President Michael Froman, who advises Obama on international trade.

Greater Biodiversity Protects from Disease, Study Shows

A new study on amphibians carried out by the University of Colorado in Boulder has shown that the greater the diversity in a given ecosystem, the better its species are protected from disease. Studying a parasite that causes leg deformities in frogs, the researchers tested a hypothesis that the more species a pathogen infects, the more likely it is to hit dead ends. If it affects more resistant species, the likelihood of transmission is lessened. In ponds with high biodiversity, the number of frogs with deformed legs was 78.5 percent smaller. “Our results indicate that higher diversity reduces the success of pathogens in moving between hosts,” said  Pieter Johnson, lead author of the study. “Nonetheless, if infection pressure is high … there will still be a significant risk of disease; biodiversity will simply function to dampen transmission success.” The findings could be significant for the epidemiology of diseases that affect humans.

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