The Obama Administration

Give Barry a Break

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak President Barack Obama winks as he arrives to make a statement regarding the passage of the fiscal-cliff bill in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House. W hen President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in 1862 (a couple of times, actually), he conceded the possible unconstitutionality of what he had done but concluded that since the move was necessary in a time when half the country was at war with the other half, he would take his chances with Congress, the courts, and history. The country’s current chief executive finds Lincoln comparisons disconcerting, but this is a case where he might pay attention, because his legal grounds for unilaterally raising the ceiling on the national debt in a time of congressionally inflicted crisis are no weaker than Lincoln’s and probably stronger. The latest furor over who should be paying taxes in this country is, as of 36 hours ago, over. This follows a presidential campaign in which the candidate who ran on...

Retrench Warfare

AP Photo/Alex Brandon
AP Photo/Alex Brandon Senator Mike Johanns, a Republican from Nebraska, left, walks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky to the Senate floor for a vote on the fiscal cliff early this morning. The Senate vote just before dawn in favor of a permanent tax hike on the top one percent defers virtually all of the other budget battles. Assuming the House follows suit today, it is up to President Obama and the Democrats to radically change the conversation. In the deal that the Senate agreed to, with only eight senators voting against, the Democrats won big in two respects. They forced the Republicans to raise taxes on the rich, and they took all spending cuts including in Social Security off the table—for now. If Tea Party Republicans vote against the deal and it passes the House with the voters of nearly all Democrats and a few dozen renegade Republicans, it could cost John Boehner his Speakership. But automatic cuts of $120 billion this year and $1.2 trillion over a...

Obama Appoints Scott Brown as Senator from Massachusetts

Flickr/U.S Embassy Kabul Afghanistan
Flickr/U.S Embassy Kabul Afghanistan Senator John Kerry and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzain in Kabul in 2009. The Washington Post reports that President Obama has nominated Massachusetts Senator John Kerry to be the next Secretary of State. This doesn’t come as a surprise; he was on the short list behind Hillary Clinton, and has been a stalwart defender of the administration’s foreign policy choices over the last four years. Clinton is a hard act to follow, but there’s little doubt Kerry will perform well in the position. If there’s a problem, it’s that Kerry’s departure from the Senate leaves an open seat in Massachusetts, and as it happens, there’s a former Republican senator—Scott Brown—itching to get back into the game. It helps that he’s still well liked by most Massachusetts voters; a recent poll from MassINC Polling Group shows Brown with high favorability—58 percent, compared to 28 percent who view him unfavorably. The New York Times ’ Nate Silver isn’t so sure that Brown...

Debating the Chained CPI

Flickr/The Survivor Woman/401(K)
Yesterday, I posted a piece that questioned the political and policy wisdom of President Obama’s latest offer for a budget deal. My qualms were vindicated when Speaker Boehner, rather than taking the widely leaked “progress” as a new common ground, went back to his starting point and offered his own “Plan B”. This left President Obama in just the position that he vowed that he’d be in again—“negotiating against himself.” In the piece, I also criticized the role of my friend Bob Greenstein in lending credence to backdoor cuts in Social Security. Bob is the much revered and tireless advocate for the poor who is the longtime president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. My piece questioned both his political logic in assuming that Social Security cuts have any place in this budget deal and his assumption that including them will somehow protect programs for the poor. My piece mistakenly described the annual cut as 3 percent rather than 0.3 percent, but it accurately pointed...

Fixing Obama’s Second Term

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green) President Barack Obama waves to the crowd at his election night party celebrating his victory over challenger Mitt Romney. I n the president’s first term, a gauntlet of procedural hurdles stood in the way of progressive change. As Majority Leader Harry Reid promises to reform the filibuster—on the magical day when the new Senate convenes and can make new rules—most progressives are wondering whether it’s an end to many of President Barack Obama’s problems. After all, without the constant threat of a filibuster, Senate Democrats wouldn’t have had to scramble for votes from the centrists who watered down health-care legislation and stalled action on climate change in Obama’s first two years, when he had an outright majority in the Senate. But the filibuster was only the most obvious procedural challenge to a more progressive Obama first term. There are other things the president did in his first four years that caused important legislation to sputter and fail...

Chairman Summers? Let’s Hope Not

AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi
AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers addresses a press conference after attending the Group of Seven finance ministers in Fukuoka, Japan in July 2000. He’s back. Larry Summers is running hard to succeed Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve when Bernanke’s term expires in early 2014. This is not a great idea, for three main reasons. The first is Summers’ famous temperament. The problem is not just that he’s less than sensitive to women. It’s that he’s a bully in general, cocksure of himself, using others as foils and prevailing by controlling the agenda. Through several turns in a career marked by falling upwards, Summers’ chief patron and sponsor, Robert Rubin, keeps assuring people that “Larry has changed.” And Larry keeps not changing. It was the bullying more than the disrespect towards women that finally got him fired as president of Harvard. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously said of Franklin Roosevelt, “a second-rate...

John Kerry, the Most Progressive Pick for the State Department?

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Flickr/U.S Embassy Kabul Afghanistan Senator John Kerry and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzain in Kabul in 2009. T he optics of Susan Rice’s withdrawal from consideration for secretary of State are disheartening. Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post and Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio attributed racism and sexism to the campaign against Rice, with Marcus writing that “the attack had something to do with Rice’s gender, and her sharp elbows and sometimes sharper tongue,” while Fudge said “[ Republican senators ] have never called a male 'unqualified,' 'not bright,' 'not trustworthy,' …there is a clear sexism and racism that goes with these comments.” Given that foreign policy circles are among the worst in terms of gender diversity, Rice’s withdrawal from consideration is a tough blow for the representation of women and minorities in top leadership positions. Even so, John Kerry may be a better secretary of State for progressives when it comes to philosophical approaches to military...

Social Security: Will Obama Cave?

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak President Barack Obama looks toward reporters shouting questions at him regarding the fiscal cliff as he walks to the White House after attending a holiday party for the National Security Council. O nce again, President Obama seems to be on the verge of folding a winning hand. Widely leaked reports indicate that the president and House Speaker John Boehner are making a fiscal deal that includes hiking tax rates back to the pre-Bush levels with a threshold of $400,000 rather than the original $250,000, and cutting present Social Security benefits. Obama, the reports say, will now settle for as little as $1.2 trillion in tax increases on the rich rather than the $1.6 trillion that he had originally sought. The difference, in effect, will come out of the pockets of workers, retirees, the young, and the poor. Especially foolish is the cut in Social Security benefits, disguised as a change in the cost-of-living adjustment formula. Before getting to the arcane...

Gun Control, No Longer the Dems' Electoral Kryptonite

Lawrence Jackson / White House
The most notable thing to come out of President Obama’s speech last night—eulogizing the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut—was his unambiguous commitment to pursuing new gun regulations in the coming weeks. Granted, he didn’t use the word “gun,” but the implications were clear: If there’s even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that’s visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try. In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such...

War At Home

(Associated Press)
Perhaps the most breathtakingly obscene aspect of American society is our absolute and utter refusal to deal with the murderous gun violence that lays its awful blanket of blood and sorrow across the families of thousands upon thousands of victims each and every year. On Friday, even the presumed safe harbor of an elementary school in suburban Newtown, Connecticut, was defiled when the school was invaded by a young man armed with military-style assault weapons. Try to imagine the sudden horror of the six- and seven-year-olds in two first-grade classrooms as the gunman, who had already killed their principal, opened fire on the children themselves. He would kill a total of 26 people, including 20 children, before taking his own life. How many times will we allow these atrocities to occur before we find the courage and the will to intervene? What is the point of having a self-governing society if we can’t—or won’t—protect kindergarten pupils from the flood-tide of killing set loose by a...

Obama, Crying

White House
While plenty of people criticized President Barack Obama’s speech yesterday—“I react not as a President, but as anybody else would—as a parent"—I was less bothered by what he said than I was relieved by what he did: choke up, take a minute to gather himself and, through the rest of the press conference, wipe back tears. Of course, I thought. Crying is the appropriate response to have to a day like this. Mia Farrow tweeted that it was the first time she’d seen an American president cry, and she might be right. It’s a significant step. In most of politics, and most of public life, we’ve been taught that emotion is the opposite of reason, that our feelings will cloud our judgment, and that the last thing an American president should ever do is trade swagger for sentiment. It was this view of emotion, of course, that helped justify the barring of women from public office. She just can’t handle it, was the refrain. The view of women as inherently more emotional than men is one feminists...

Rice Takes Herself Out

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Here is the lead of The New York Times' two-column front-page story today: Washington—President Obama knew before he picked up the phone on Thursday afternoon what Susan E. Rice, his ambassador to the United Nations, was calling about: she wanted to take herself out of the running for secretary of state and spare him a fight. Really ? Are you kidding? I have no inside sources, but this just not how things work. Does Times reporter Landler truly think that President Obama left this decision to Rice? More likely, the president and his political strategists and vote counters have been agonizing for weeks about whether a good dogfight with Republicans over Rice’s confirmation would be a net plus or a net minus. Ultimately, they decided it was better to get someone else. If Obama really did leave this to Rice herself, he is even more of a wuss than his worst detractors contend. Landler continues in the second paragraph: By acceding to Ms Rice’s request, which she had conveyed to White...

Drinking the Deficit-Reduction Kool-Aid

It was the centerpiece of the president’s re-election campaign. Every time Republicans complained about trillion-dollar deficits, he and other Democrats would talk jobs. That’s what Americans care about—jobs with good wages. And that’s part of why Obama and the Democrats were victorious on Election Day. It seems forever ago, but it’s worth recalling that President Obama won re-election by more than 4 million votes, a million more than George W. Bush when he was re-elected—and an Electoral College majority of 332 to Romney’s 206, again larger than Bush’s electoral majority over Kerry in 2004 (286 to 251). The Democratic caucus in the Senate now has 55 members (up from 53), and Republicans have eight fewer seats in the House than before. So why, exactly, is Washington back to obsessing about budget deficits? Why is almost all the news coming out of our nation’s capital about whether the Democrats or Republicans have the best plan to reduce the budget deficit? Why are we back to...

Things Change

Liberals often joke about how all it takes is one backbench Democratic member of Congress looking at another one funny to produce a "Dems in Disarray!" headline. But today the Republicans truly are in disarray. They just got whupped in a presidential election; they can't quite seem to figure out how to handle the current fiscal negotiations; their leading figure is a not-particularly-appealing House Speaker terrified of his own caucus; their agenda is clearly unpopular; they can't escape their image as the party of the rich; and they represent, almost exclusively, a demographic (white people) that is rapidly sliding toward minority status. It's not a good time to be a Republican. Which is why, as a public service announcement, I thought I'd offer a little reminder. Just a few short years ago, plenty of smart and informed people were contemplating how successful Karl Rove and George Bush would be at creating a "permanent Republican majority." There were books written like Building Red...

The Courts: How Obama Dropped the Ball

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
(AP Photo/J. David Ake) I n his novel King of the Jews , Leslie Epstein sets his story in the wartime ghetto of Lodz, Poland, where the Gestapo ruled through an appointed council of Jewish elders. Epstein, researching the book, tracked down the gallows humor of the time. In one such joke, told by a character in the novel, two Jews are facing a firing squad. The commandant asks if they would like blindfolds. One of the condemned whispers to the other, “Don’t make trouble.” “Don’t make trouble” could have been the credo of the first year of the Obama Administration. The White House calculated that if the president just extended the hand of conciliation to the Republicans, the opposition would reciprocate and together they would change the tone in Washington. This was the policy on everything from the stimulus to health reform to judicial nominations. It didn’t work out so well. Now, spurred by the tailwind of a re-election victory and the realization that public opinion is on his side,...

Pages