The Obama Administration

Why Obama Should Take a Cue from Gerald Ford on Crack Pardons

AP Images/Felipe Dana
I n late December, the Obama administration announced that the president would commute the sentences of eight prisoners serving decades-long sentences for crack-cocaine distribution (or intent to distribute). Last week, at a New York State Bar event, Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced that there may be more—many more. The administration, he said, will seek other drug cases to consider for clemency, working with the Bureau of Prisons to encourage inmates to request commutations and asking that state bar associations help with preparing their petitions. After five years of organizing and lobbying the president to use his pardoning power for thousands still jailed under draconian sentences for crack, you might have expected the news to have clemency advocates jumping for joy. But they responded with well-worn skepticism. On his widely read blog, Sentencing Law and Policy, Ohio State law professor Doug Berman speculated that Obama's actions were more about holiday traditions...

Pipeline or Pipe Bomb?

AP Images/The Tyler Morning Telegraph/Sarah A. Miller
Chances are that you missed the State Department releasing the final environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline last week. You were meant to: it came out on 4pm on the Friday before Super Bowl Sunday. The mainstream media only had a few moments to glance at the executive summary—the report itself is an un-skimmable eleven volumes long—before the news cycle moved onto the big game. But if you live or work in Washington, D.C., and take the Metro , you may well have been assailed for months by Canada's multi-million dollar advertising blitz promoting the pipeline. Commuters are being treated to homey images of happy little girls poking their heads out from behind the American and Canadian flags, side by side, and to awkward slogans like "America and Canada: Standing together for energy independence." The commuters the ads are targeted at are the people involved in deciding whether to approve TransCanada Corporation's application to build a pipeline that would carry up to 830,000...

Republicans Are Really, Really Bad at Hostage Negotiations

For some time, I've been arguing that we should not just extend the debt ceiling but get rid of it altogether. It's a weird historical anomaly that serves no practical purpose other than allowing the opposition party, should it be sufficiently reckless, to threaten global economic catastrophe if it doesn't get its way. I assumed that your average Washington Democrat would share this view, but now I'm beginning to think that if you're someone like Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama, the debt ceiling is actually quite helpful, and you'd be sorry to see it go. Because here's what keeps happening: The debt ceiling approaches. Republicans begin making threats to torpedo the country's economy by not raising it, and thereby sending the United States government into default, if their demands aren't met. We then have a couple of weeks of debate, disagreement, and hand-wringing. Republican infighting grows more intense, and their reputation as a bunch of radicals who are willing to burn down the...

Left Grovels to Right, Achieves Nothing

Before yesterday's Super Bowl, President Obama sat for a ten-minute interview with Fox News's Bill O'Reilly. The interview was about what you'd expect: a grab-bag of conservative grievances, discredited conspiracy theories, and attempts at gotcha questions. Why didn't you call Benghazi terrorism! Why haven't you fired Kathleen Sebelius! Why did the head of the IRS visit the White House! And my personal favorite, when O'Reilly read a letter from a viewer asking, "Mr. President, why do you feel it's necessary to fundamentally transform the nation that has afforded you so much opportunity and success?" Ah yes, the "transform America" outrage, as though that 2008 statement must have been a coded message meaning Obama wanted to destroy America, combined with the old Why aren't you people more grateful? The question is, though, why on earth would a Democratic president bother to grant an interview to an antagonistic conservative talk show host? The New York Times described the interview as...

Reports of Obama's Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

AP Images
AP Images T he Barack Obama who appeared before Congress a few nights ago missed history’s memo that his presidency is over. It was the same Obama who missed the 2007 memo that Hillary Clinton was going to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008, the same Obama who missed the memo in late 2009 that health-care reform was doomed, the same Obama who missed the bulletin in the fall of 2012, following the first presidential debate, that Governor Mitt Romney was overtaking him in the campaign and on the way to defeating him. This isn’t to say that Obama’s not smart enough to recognize, and not human enough to rue, the ways in which his presidency must seem to many people, himself in particular, a missed opportunity. Obama came into office five years ago not with the traditional political ego but rather an historical ego, determined to be nothing less than a great president like his hero Abraham Lincoln, though it’s just as well for everyone that this was never really possible since...

What Can Obama Actually Do to Solve Campus Sexual Assault?

AP Images/The News and Observer/Travis Long
Courtesy Alexandra Brodsky Last week, student activists against sexual assault got some exciting news: The president announced that he was forming a task force to tackle the epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses. “An estimated one in five women is sexually assaulted in college, and that’s totally unacceptable,” Obama said in his weekly address. “We’re going to do help schools do a better job of preventing and responding to sexual assault on their campuses, because college should be a place where young people feel secure and confident.” Obama gave the task force ninety days to come up with an “action plan” for combating campus rape. In conjunction with Obama’s announcement, the White House Council on Women and Girls released a report full of grim statistics . Only 12 percent of college sexual assault survivors report their rape to law enforcement officials. Alcohol plays a major role, with perpetrators preying on incapacitated students or plying their victims with drugs or...

Is Barack Obama a Tyrant?

You can't spell "tyrant" without "rant"!
A typical State of the Union address is criticized for being a "laundry list," little more than an endless string of proposals the president would like to see enacted. The criticism usually has two parts: first, most of the items on the laundry list will never come to pass, and second, it makes for a boring speech (the pundits who make the criticism seem to care more about the second part). Last night's SOTU didn't have the usual laundry list (which of course meant that it was criticized for being too vague), but the one specific proposal getting much attention today is President Obama's idea to require that on future federal contracts, all workers be paid at least $10.10 per hour. So naturally, Republicans are crying that this is the latest example of Obama's tyrannical rule, in which he ruthlessly ignores the law whenever he pleases. As Ted Cruz wrote in today's Wall Street Journal , "Of all the troubling aspects of the Obama presidency, none is more dangerous than the president's...

Obama Punts on Immigration

AP Photo
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2014. I t is easy to overstate the importance of the State of the Union address in defining Obama’s legacy —particularly in an election year, when presidential pressure can become a liability for those running in down-ticket races—but there are at least two areas where progressives say the president should have pushed harder last night: immigration and protections for gay, lesbian, and transgender people in the workplace. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would outlaw workplace discrimination against LGBT people, passed the Senate in November but has floundered in the House, where Speaker John Boehner, who has said publicly the legislation is unnecessary, said he will not bring it to a floor vote. Obama made no mention of ENDA last night, and has on a number of occasions downplayed the use of executive action to ensure rights for LGBT workers. The president did, however...

Obama Threads the Needle

For Democrats, for liberals, today’s political climate poses a singular challenge. On one hand, poll after poll shows the public believes the economy is rigged against all but the rich. On the other, poll after poll shows that the same public—particularly after the disastrous roll-out of Obamacare—doesn’t believe government is the answer to the failings of the market economy. Indeed, recent polls show that the public mistrusts big government more than it does big business (which does not mean it holds big business in high, or even middlin’, esteem). Now, there’s precious little that can mitigate the growing inequalities of the current American market other than government and unions. But government is in disrepute and unions, in the private sector, have all but vanished. To his credit, President Obama not only knows this but has on occasion delivered robust defenses of government’s ability to counteract the structural deficiencies of the market through programs like Social Security,...

The Six Constituencies the State of the Union Actually Mattered To

AP Images/Charles Dharapak
AP Images/Charles Dharapak I t was a strange State of the Union Address—mixing emotional tugs on the heartstrings with anodyne rhetoric that made it seem like everyone from Barack Obama to the angriest Tea Party Republican was bored with the annual exercise. The speech had no over-arching theme save (yawn) America’s enduring greatness. There were hard-hitting sentences and paragraphs, but no dramatic policy proposals nor even bold, if unattainable, dreams. The State of the Union address was unlikely to anger anyone whether it was financial titans fearing economic Kristallnacht or Bashar al-Assad. For all of Obama’s rhetorical gifts, it was another speech that was mangled beyond recognition by the State of the Union sausage grinder. Before the speech, the agony of White House wordsmiths struggling with the State of the Union was memorably captured by Jeff Shesol, a Bill Clinton alum, who described the standard text as “written by a flash mob—a sudden aggregation, inside and around the...

GOP to Working Poor: Drop Dead

AP Images/Charles Dharapak
In one of the better lines in last night's State of the Union address , President Obama chided House Republicans for their endless series of votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act: "[L]et's not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that's already helping millions of Americans ... The first 40 were plenty." He followed up by observing that "we all owe it to the American people to say what we're for, not just what we're against." As it happens, last week three Republican senators outlined a plan that can be fairly described as a Republican plan to replace Obamacare. (The basic features of the plan are clearly described by Sarah Kliff of Wonkblog here .) Because most of the Republican Party convinced themselves in 2009 that a tax penalty for people who don't carry health insurance was a grave threat to the American constitutional order, the plan does not include an individual mandate. But otherwise, in its general priorities the plan strongly resembles the Heritage Plan of the...

Daily Meme: The State of Our Union? Super-Stoked, Apparently

State of the Union addresses used to be no-frills affairs— in 1790, George Washington delivered one that was probably around 6 minutes long to a joint session of Congress in New York City, leaving him plenty of time to swill a couple mugs of cider with his boys and get to bed at a reasonable hour. Thomas Jefferson hated public speaking, so he did away with the addressing Congress bit and just sent the gentlemen a letter—presidents did this until Woodrow Wilson decided in 1913 that he'd reclaim the podium. The modern predidency is pretty damn enamored of the speech, though. It's the ultimate big-swinging-dick moment in politics, where members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices, activists, and the American public must sit and listen without interrupting to what the president has to say, for, in the case of President Obama, an average of 1 hour . As the speech has gotten longer and more formalized over the years, so has the hype surrounding it, along with the theater of the main event...

Investing in Stock Buybacks, Not People

AP Images/Richard Drew
One fundamental reason why the American economy continues to limp along is that no one—at least, no one with major bucks—is investing in it. The Obama Administration countered the collapse of private sector investment in 2009 with its stimulus program, which, alas, was partially offset by all the cutbacks in state and local government spending. It’s not been able, however, to get any subsequent investment projects through the Republican House. The private sector—the corporate sector more particularly—returned not just to profitability but record profitability by the middle of 2010, but its profits have neither resulted from nor led to increased investment. To the contrary, American corporations have never sat on so much unexpended cash. Right now, their cash piles total more than $1.5 trillion, and that’s not counting the assets of the banks. The cash is concentrated in the coffers of our largest corporations, many of them tech companies. Apple leads the list with $150 billion...

Federal Board Finds NSA Program Illegal and Unjustified

AP Images/Oliver Berg
Yesterday, as Charlie Savage of the New York Times reported , the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) created by Congress issued a comprehensive report on the National Security Administration's collection of telephone data. This damning report makes it clear that President Obama's proposed reforms to the program don't go far enough . The PCLOB report raises serious questions about the legality of the program, and perhaps even more importantly, finds scant evidence that it has been effective at achieving its anti-terror goals. To start with question of the legality of the NSA program, the report raises both statutory and constitutional concerns. The report finds that the program exceeded the authority granted by Congress under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. According to the report, "Section 215 is designed to enable the FBI to acquire records that a business has in its possession, as part of an FBI investigation, when those records are relevant to the investigation...

The State of Our Union? Economically Unjust

AP Images
To honor Martin Luther King, Jr., the White House declared a “day of service” in Dr. King’s memory, and President Obama spent a few minutes on Monday helping to serve meals in a soup kitchen near the White House. Talk about a tin ear, or a timid one. For starters, Martin Luther King’s life was not about soup kitchens. It was about radical, disruptive struggle to win civil rights; and then in his last five years it was about connecting racial justice to economic justice. Dr. King took pains to define the 1963 March on Washington as about jobs as well as justice. He was murdered while helping striking sanitation workers in Memphis fight for decent wages. If we had more good jobs, and less Republican assault on what’s left of our social safety net, we’d need fewer soup kitchens. The president might have honored Dr. King’s legacy by giving a speech about that. One can sympathize—to a point—with President Obama’s wish to downplay both the radicalism and the racial aspect of Dr. King. As...

Pages