The Obama Administration

The Chemical-Weapon Taboo and America's Next War

A Canadian World War I soldier with mustard gas burns. (Wikimedia Commons)
Back in December, when the White House first declared that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would constitute a "red line" whose crossing would produce some kind of response (they never said what kind), I wondered why the taboo against chemical weapons exists. Now that it looks like we're about to start bombing Syria , it's worth revisiting the question of what lies behind the taboo and how it is guiding our feelings and actions. Why do we have this international consensus saying that while it's bad for someone like Assad to bomb a neighborhood full of civilians and kill all the men, women, and children therein, it's worse for him to kill that same number of civilians by means of poison gas than by means of "conventional" munitions that merely tear their bodies to pieces? Indeed, we act as though killing, say, a hundred people with poison gas is worse than killing a thousand or ten thousand people with conventional weapons. After all, the Obama administration (not...

The Impeachniks Roar

Coming soon to an overpass near you. (photo from Facebook)
There have been only two presidential impeachments in the 224 years since George Washington became America's first president. Both—of Andrew Johnson in 1868 and of Bill Clinton in 1998—failed to get the required two-thirds majority in the Senate. And Richard Nixon, of course, was about to be impeached in 1974 when he chose to resign instead; unlike the other two, there would have been nothing partisan about Nixon's impeachment and he almost certainly would have been convicted. There are always some partisans of the party out of power who would like to impeach the president, simply because it's the only way to get rid of him if you can't beat him at the polls. But a presidency without too much actual criminality shouldn't produce too many such armchair prosecutors. Or so you'd think. But these are no ordinary times, and the Republican thirst for impeaching Barack Obama (or "Barack Hussein Obama," as impeachniks inevitably call him) has gone mainstream, as evidenced by the fact that The...

Washington's Weed Whackers

For most of Stephanie Kahn’s life, medical marijuana was a tempting remedy that remained just out of reach. Her father, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, was told by doctors as early as the 1970s that medical marijuana could alleviate his symptoms. At first, he was repelled by the idea of using an illegal drug. But as the pain and muscle spasms grew worse, he eventually tried marijuana and found that, as the doctors said, it provided almost-miraculous relief. Decades later, when her mother was undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer, Kahn, a nurse, heard the same refrain. “She lost 45 pounds in a month and a half,” she recalls. “And the doctor kept saying, marijuana could help her handle the chemo, could help her get her appetite back.” Months after her mother’s death in 2009, Kahn’s husband of 37 years, Jeffrey, a Reform Jewish rabbi who had retired from congregational ministry a few years earlier, floated an unorthodox idea: What if they opened a medical marijuana dispensary? “...

A Bold Obamacare Prediction

An ad from Organizing For America
Love may not mean never having to say you're sorry (what a dumb idea, anyway), but being a blogger means being able to make predictions and not really worrying about whether you turn out to be right or wrong. Oh sure, if you're spectacularly wrong, and wrong on television (see Kristol, Bill ), people might make fun of you. But usually, nobody remembers. And if you're right, you can remind everyone of how clever you were. In that spirit, let me offer a prediction. The implementation of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, begins with open enrollment for the state exchanges on October 1, with coverage beginning on January 1. Sarah Kliff, who knows as much about the law as pretty much any reporter, returned from a cruise to report that the regular folks she encountered, when they heard what she does for a living, all wanted to know whether Obamacare was going to work. This was true of supporters and opponents alike. Not that the people Sarah met on the Lido Deck are a...

The NSA Can't Be Trusted

flickr/Sparky
flickr/Alex Ellison O n August 9, President Obama gave a news conference at which he defended his administration's record on surveillance while proposing some modest reforms. Predictably, it got mixed reviews from observers concerned about civil liberties. Less than a week later, The Washington Post published an important story about the National Security Agency (NSA) that makes it clear more reforms are necessary—and undermine Obama's defense of his record. The key finding of the story, by Scott Wilson and Zachary Goldfarb: An internal audit found 2,776 "incidents" in which NSA surveillance breached rules between April 2011 and March 2012. Even worse, the rates of illegal "incidents" have been increasing. As the Post 's Timothy Lee says , "We now know that President Obama’s assurances that the NSA wasn’t ‘actually abusing’ its surveillance programs are untrue." The only question is whether Obama deliberately misled the public, or whether he was unaware of these violations. Neither...

Slow and Steady Wins the Anti-Keystone XL Race

AP Photo/Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel, Andrew D. Brosig
Flickr/ Elizabeth Brossa G race Cagle knew what Keystone XL’s path through Texas meant for the state’s environment. The pipeline was going to run through the post-oak savannah, a type of forest that's drying out, desertifying. It’s one of the few places in the world where the ivory-billed woodpecker—one of the world's largest woodpeckers, a bird so endangered that for years no one had seen one alive—makes its home. Cagle graduated college at the end of 2012 and had planned to get a PhD.; she was studying ecology, biology, and chemistry. But she couldn’t just sit in a classroom while Texas was in danger. So, she took a risk. She sat in a tree. She stayed there while construction crews hired by TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone XL pipeline, came and took down the trees around her. In October, TransCanada sued the group she joined, the Tar Sands Blockade, along with other organizations employing direct action against the pipeline. As the company tried to stop the blockaders,...

President Obama Wants to Talk to You

President Obama at today's press conference, talking about talking.
When Barack Obama made remarks about the Trayvon Martin case, saying there isn't much value in "national conversations" led by a president, it was an unusual kind of candor. After all, having a national conversation is a great way to not do anything about a problem—particularly one that seems nearly impossible to solve. (If there's a problem that's quite possible to solve but would require politically difficult steps, one appoints a commission to study it.) I thought of that watching his press conference today, when he was asked about the various surveillance programs that have come to light as a result of Edward Snowden's revelations. After a somewhat rambling discussion of all the safeguards already in place to make sure nothing bad could possibly come of the government tracking your phone and Internet traffic, Obama said he's "looking forward to having a conversation" about these matters with all kinds of people who have an interest in the topic. A conversation! In fairness, the...

Rand Paul Doesn't Know What He's Talking About (In Charts)

Look inside for the big version. You know you want it.
Blazing Republican supernova, Rand Paul, is emerging as the most media coverage-getting potential 2016 candidate, and while there's a good chance he'll end up being that year's Michele Bachmann, there is one thing he keeps repeating that requires a little clarification. It's become one of those things that folks just "know" about the world, even though it's utterly untrue. And since the best way to counter any piece of misinformation is with an attractive and enlightening chart or two, I thought that's what the situation needed. Yesterday, Bloomberg 's Joshua Green interviewed Paul, and when asked about the significant budget cuts he was proposing, the senator said this: "You know, the thing is, people want to say it’s extreme. But what I would say is extreme is a trillion-dollar deficit every year. I mean, that's an extremely bad situation. I would say it's a very reasonable proposition to say that we would only spend what comes in." First off, saying "that we would only spend what...

Mortgage Reform: Watch Your Fannie

AP Images/ Manuel Balce Ceneta
AP Images/ Manuel Balce Ceneta Speaking in Phoenix on Tuesday, President Obama associated himself with a bipartisan proposal to slowly get Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac out of the business of backing mortgages. According to the plan, formulated in the Senate, a new federal agency called the Federal Mortgage Insurance Corporation would backstop banks and other private investors against catastrophic mortgage losses, but only after they had run though their own substantial capital first. Obama said, “For too long these companies were allowed to make huge profits buying mortgages, knowing that if their bets went bad, taxpayers would be left holding the bag. It was 'heads we win, tails you lose,' and it was wrong. The good news is right now there's a bipartisan group of senators working to end Fannie and Freddie as we know them. And I support these kinds of reform efforts." It sounds good, but there is reason to worry that this plan would protect the government against losses but at the price...

Threat of Terrorism Still Making People Stupid

Save us from this man.
When you're a partisan, you have a certain obligation to be, well, partisan. That means you have to put the things your side does in the best light and the things the other side does in the worst light. Their motives are always suspect while your are always pure, and if anything goes wrong it was obviously their fault, while if anything goes right they had nothing to do with it. But just how far does this obligation extend? How far beyond the borders of logic and reason can you ride it? The unfortunate answer is, pretty darn far. As you've heard, the administration ordered a number of embassies, mostly in the Middle East, closed for a few days because of some "chatter" relating to a potential al Qaeda attack. Republican Congressman Peter King said that this demonstrates that "Al Qaeda is in many ways stronger than it was before 9/11," which is kind of like saying that the fact that the Backstreet Boys are currently touring shows that they're even more popular than they were in the...

Exporting America's Campaigner-in-Chief

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak B arack Obama's 2012 campaign was without question the most complex and technologically sophisticated in history. That's true simply because the tools available to campaigns grow more advanced each year; the president's most recent campaign was able to understand and appeal to voters in more granular ways than the 2008 campaign did, and the 2008 campaign in turn did things the 2004 campaigns barely dreamt of. But it's also because the people who ran the Obama effort were better at their extremely difficult jobs than their Republican counterparts, just as they had been four years before (having a more skilled candidate didn't hurt, either). So it wasn't a surprise to hear that Jim Messina, who ran the 2012 Obama campaign, has been hired to consult on the next British election, which won't take place until 2015. What did surprise some was that he'll be working for the Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron. So does this make Messina a cynical...

Part-Time America

AP Images/Matt Slocum
Of the 963,000 jobs created in the past six months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Household Surveys, 936,000 of them are part-time. That doesn’t mean that just 27,000 of the people hired on to new jobs got full-time work. The total for part-time jobs includes both newly created jobs and formerly full-time gigs that were cut-back to part-time, and the BLS doesn’t pose the questions that would enable it to quantify these two kinds of new part-time jobs. But factoring in both kinds, we do know that the net number of full-time jobs in America has risen by just 27,000 since the end of January. One reason that the number of full-time jobs is so abysmally low is Obamacare’s employee mandate, which stipulated that employers with 50 or more workers either had to provide all such workers who put in at least 30 hours a week with health insurance, or pay a penalty that would help defray the government’s costs for providing subsidized benefits. The administration announced...

The Long Road to a Decent Economy

AP Images/Carolyn Kaster
To underscore a weeklong initiative by President Obama on behalf of rebuilding the middle class, the latest figures on GDP growth, released Thursday, and on job growth, made public Friday, show just how far from a healthy middle class economy we are. Revised figures show that GDP growth fell to a rate of just 1.4 percent in the first six months of 2013, even less than last year’s dismal rate of 2.2 percent. These numbers are not enough to create an adequate supply of jobs, much less good jobs, much less wage growth. And sure enough, when the employment numbers for July were released on Friday, the grim trend was confirmed. Just 162,000 jobs were added in July, and most of them were relatively low-wage jobs. Average earnings actually fell. At this rate it will take another six years to get unemployment back to pre-2008 levels according to the Economic Policy Institute, and more than a decade according to the Hamilton Project. The official unemployment rate dropped slightly, from 7.6 to...

The Rise and Fall of a "Scandal"

He never quite got what he wanted. (Flickr/stanfordcis)
Remember the IRS scandal? Haven't heard much about it lately, have you? Yet for a while, it was big, big news, and so often happens, the initial blockbuster allegations were everywhere, penetrating down to even the least attentive citizen, while the full story, which turned out to be rather less dramatic, got kind of buried. News organizations aren't in the habit of shouting, "BREAKING: That Thing We Said Was Huge Last Week? Eh, Not So Much." Brendan Nyhan has looked at how this "scandal attention cycle" played out with the IRS and turned it into some charts : What that means in practice is that while pretty much everybody heard that the IRS was "targeting conservative groups," far fewer people have learned that there is now lots of evidence that the IRS wasn't targeting conservative groups (see Alec MacGillis for a good explanation). In the news organizations' defense, one could argue that the allegations were pretty dramatic, so they reported on it a lot when they emerged. But then...

The Obama Administration's Unhealthy Obsession with Whistleblowers

Yesterday saw a mixed verdict delivered to Bradley Manning, who was charged with various crimes under the Espionage Act for leaking classified materials to WikiLeaks. Colonel Denise Lind, who presided over the court-martial, acquitted Manning of the most serious charge brought against him while finding him guilty on 20 of the 21 lesser charges. Lind's ruling is at least a partial victory, acting as a partial break of the Obama administration's overreaching war on whistleblowers. But many aspects of the case remain disturbing. It is notable and welcome that the government could not convince Lind that Manning was guilty of aiding the enemy under the Espionage Act. Since this charge rested on the theory that releasing any information the government would rather keep quiet is "aiding the enemy" by definition, the dangers of convicting Manning can hardly be overstated. The idea that transparency aids the enemy is the same theory behind prosecuting newspapers for publishing the Pentagon...

Pages