NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Beyonce is one of the world's most scrutinized pop stars, and now that study is moving to academia.
The Department of Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University is offering a course called "Politicizing Beyonce."
Kevin Allred, a doctoral student who is teaching the class, tells the university's online news site that he is using Beyonce's career as a way to explore American race, gender and sexual politics.
The class supplements an analysis of Beyonce's videos and lyrics with readings from black feminists. Allred says he's seeking to help students think more critically about media consumption.
Rutgers also has a class examining the theology of Bruce Springsteen's lyrics.
Georgetown University has a class called "The Sociology of Hip-Hop: The Urban Theodicy of Jay-Z," focusing on Beyonce's rapper husband. -- (AP)
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sets off Wednesday on a four-city tour to pound home his annual State of the Union message, a major pep talk to a pessimistic nation, a call to action by a divided Congress and a promise to sidestep legislative gridlock by using his executive powers where he can.
Obama maintained his recent focus on America's vast income inequality that has only grown worse in the aftermath of the Great Recession and near collapse of the economy in 2008.
Obama, speaking in what is traditionally a president's biggest speech of the year, was trying as well to set the stage for Democrat victories in the November midterm congressional elections at a time when his popularity has fallen dramatically despite a steadily improving economy. He is particularly dogged by stubbornly high unemployment.
"America does not stand still, and neither will I," the president said in his nationally televised State of the Union address to a packed chamber. "So whatever and wherever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do."
Republicans, especially in the House of Representatives, have managed to stymie most of the president's legislative agenda since they re-took the House of Representatives in 2010. Their leader, Speaker John Boehner, was quick to throw cold water on Obama's plans for executive action.
"The president must understand his power is limited by our Constitution, and the authority he has doesn't add up to much for those without opportunity in this economy," he said.
Obama has acknowledged he faces constitutional limits in acting without Congress, but realizes he still faces a wall of Republican opposition. He nevertheless renewed his calls for forward motion on his legislative agenda of creating jobs, overhauling immigration laws, combating climate change and more. Absent Republican compromises, Obama declared he would rely on executive orders where and when he could.
From Boehner down, there was little evidence they intended to move Obama's way.
"Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president's policies are making people's lives harder," Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers said in the Republicans' official response.
The State of the Union address to Congress, a tradition begun by President George Washington, was replete with all the political pageantry that Washington can muster. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opened her arms wide to give a grinning Obama a huge hug as he walked past her on the way to the speaker's rostrum, where he kicked the sixth year of his presidency into high gear.
The galleries ringing the floor were crowded with guests, also part of the traditional setting. But in the evening's most stirring moment the longest — and most bipartisan — applause went to one of them. Army Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, gravely injured by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, acknowledged the cheers from his seat next to first lady Michelle Obama.
By contrast, Obama's mention of the health care overhaul that bears his name brought cheers from Democrats and silence from Republicans, who have spent the past three years trying to repeal a program they loathe.
"Let's not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that's already helping millions of Americans," Obama said of repeated House Republican attempts to kill the law.
While domestic issues dominated the speech, Obama also warned Congress he would veto any sanctions bill that threatens to derail talks with Iran, even as he acknowledged that the negotiations may not succeed.
Obama said efforts to stop Iran's nuclear program will be difficult and if they fail, he will call for more sanctions. "But if Iran's leaders do seize the chance, then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war."
On Syria, he pledged "to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve — a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear."
Obama reaffirmed that the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan will formally conclude at the end of this year. But he said a small contingent of American forces could be left behind if the Afghan government quickly signs a bilateral security agreement, a prospect that looks increasingly uncertain.
Obama said the United States "will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific" and called the alliance with Europe "the strongest the world has ever known." Regarding the turmoil in Ukraine, he said "we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully, and have a say in their country's future."
Obama voiced his determination to close the income gap between rich and poor as he tries to reverse a big decline in his approval among Americans. An AP-GfK poll this month found 45 percent of those surveyed approved of Obama and 53 percent disapproved. That's much worse than a year ago, when 54 percent approved and 42 percent disapproved.
Republicans, who saw their own approval ratings plummet in 2013, have also picked up the refrain of income inequality in recent months, though they have cast the widening income gap as a symptom of Obama's economic policies.
McMorris Rodgers, in her Republican response, said her party "champions free markets — and trusts people to make their own decisions, not a government that decides for you."
Obama has some hope of winning support for an immigration overhaul, as Republicans try to build support among the country's growing Hispanic population ahead of the election.
But the White House sees a robust rollout of executive actions as the most effective way to show the public that Obama still wields power in the sixth year of his presidency.
"America does not stand still — and neither will I," Obama said. "So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do."
Obama will visit a steel plant near Pittsburgh and a Costco wholesale store in suburban Maryland to tout the new measures Wednesday. -- (AP)
Residents of Philadelphia and other parts of Pennsylvania were facing a long, cold cleanup Wednesday after the storm that dumped more than a foot of snow was replaced by bone-chilling temperatures and icy winds.
The National Weather Service said 13.5 inches of snow was recorded at Philadelphia International Airport and 14 inches at the city office of emergency management, while almost 15 inches fell in Delaware County and as much as a foot in other surrounding counties. Allentown in Lehigh County got 7 inches of snow and other parts of the state saw 5 to 10 inches.
Public and parochial schools in Philadelphia and many of its suburbs were closed Wednesday, and many schools in central Pennsylvania announced plans to open several hours late. Mayor Michael Nutter said city offices would be closed Wednesday and urged nonessential personnel "to stay home and off the roads." Nonessential employees under the governor's jurisdiction who work in the Philadelphia area were given the day off.
Forecasters issued wind chill advisories and warnings for single-digit temperatures and 15 to 20 mph winds gusting to 30 mph.
At Philadelphia International Airport, 155 passengers who missed connecting flights because of the storm were given pillows, blankets and sleeping mats as well as food and water, and several merchants remained open overnight for their needs, airport spokeswoman Victoria Lupica said. All are being accommodated or rescheduled by their airlines Wednesday morning.
Airport crews were working to clear walkways, access roads and parking lots as well as runways. Lupica said the two primary runways were open and planes were arriving and departing as usual, but airlines were still reporting about 100 canceled flights Wednesday morning. -- (AP)
WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama summoned congressional leaders for an urgent meeting last month, at the height of a fiscal crisis, Joe Biden wasn't initially mentioned as a participant. The vice president's staff quickly followed up with reporters, in case any had been wondering: Biden would be there, too.
On another occasion, Biden let a crowd at a sandwich shop know he couldn't linger. "The president is waiting," he announced to the room. "I'm having lunch with him today."
The two moments are emblematic of a vice president who has sought to make himself as central as possible in the orbit of influence in the White House without overstepping the vice president's role in ways he has said had left a terrible aftertaste from the Bush White House, when Vice President Dick Cheney was seen as having an outsized influence.
It's a delicate balance that has at times paid off for Biden, who built up relationships with world leaders over his decades-long Senate career. Obama has turned to his leadership and judgment at critical junctures in his presidency, validating Biden both publicly and privately.
On Sunday, Biden will depart for a week in Asia to meet with key leaders in a region where Obama has prominently committed to ramp up America's influence. Biden's visit to China, Japan and South Korea comes two months after Obama had to cancel his own Asia trip because of the partial government shutdown, leaving the White House seeking ways to prove it's still serious about the Asia rebalance.
"Barack Obama was smart enough when elected president to know he didn't know everything," said Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat who's known Biden since the 1970s. "One of the things he didn't really have as good of a grasp on was our relationship with leaders around the world."
Constitutionally, the vice president has only as much power as the president cares to give him or her. But as Obama's two-term deputy, Biden will see his political fortunes forever linked to the president, whose approval ratings are sagging amid the disastrous rollout of his signature health care program. How the public ultimately perceives Obama's presidency — and Biden's role in it — will be critical to Biden if he runs for president again in 2016, as he plans to consider.
At times, Biden's balancing act has meant being relegated to lower-profile tasks or conspicuously absent at key moments, such as health care rollout.
In a departure from some previous vice presidents, his aides say, Biden has never sought out specific assignments from the president. What matters is being where the action is, a key player on the issues of utmost importance to the administration, the aides said.
When he first walked through the doors of the White House, Biden was determined to be different from his immediate predecessor. Dick Cheney's heavy-handed accumulation of power had drilled a huge fault line through the Bush administration, Biden said.
He said he didn't want to have a portfolio, consigned to low-priority projects that would underutilize his vast experience built up over decades in the Senate crafting laws and building relationships with world leaders.
So Biden set his sights on fashioning himself into president's most influential adviser, aides and friends say, trying to integrate his staff with Obama's so as to maximize his footprint without creating a competing power center within the White House. Where Cheney had amassed a large national security team reporting to him, Biden returned some of those positions to the president's national security staff.
Nearly five years later, it's not hard to find signs that Obama has relied heavily on Biden and his staff at pivotal moments.
Obama called on Biden to lead his gun control campaign, a top priority at the start of the second term. The push in Congress failed, but the vice president emerged as a prominent voice for a signal liberal cause.
Obama has also turned repeatedly to Biden's brain trust to fill key roles. The White House sent Biden's top foreign policy adviser, Jake Sullivan, to meet secretly this year with Iranian officials about a possible nuclear deal while Biden aggressively lobbied his former Senate colleagues to hold off on new sanctions.
Biden was missing from October's efforts to avert and later end the 16-day government shutdown, which occurred when Republican attempts to derail the health care law delayed passage of a temporary spending bill.
Some Democratic senators said they were concerned that if Biden showed up, he'd be too eager to save the day and would hash out a deal that would give away far too much. The White House disputes that was the reason Biden wasn't heavily involved, arguing that Obama had decided he wouldn't negotiate and didn't want to send signals to the contrary.
Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University, said Biden ended up avoiding what could be a political burden down the road.
"He stood out of the way," Brinkley said. "Anybody involved in the shutdown, whose name is synonymous with the shutdown, would have egg on their face." -- (AP)
MANILA, Philippines — Grammy-winning singer Alicia Keys visited a Philippine air force base Monday to bring cheer to hundreds of evacuees from eastern provinces wracked by Typhoon Haiyan.
The American singer distributed crayons and coloring books to children at the Villamor Air Base grandstand, where evacuees from eastern Leyte and Samar provinces arrive via C-130 planes.
Social Welfare Department officer Jane Abello says Keys stayed for about half an hour to chat with evacuees.
The R&B star was in Manila for a concert Monday at the seaside MOA Arena.
The Philippine Star earlier quoted her as saying that "music has a way of lifting your spirit and that's what I hope to do for the Filipino people."
Keys tweeted three days after the Nov. 8 typhoon: "To the people of the Philippines my heart is with you."
She also encouraged fans around the world to donate to the typhoon victims. -- (AP)