The Obama Administration

One Small Step for the Fourth Amendment

AP Images/Susan Walsh
Last week, Barack Obama delivered a speech announcing some reforms in response to Edward Snowden's revelations about the National Security Agency. As with most aspects of Obama's record on civil liberties, my response is inevitably mixed. The outlined reforms would certainly constitute a real improvement over the status quo, but they are also too narrow and limited. Some of these limitations reflect real political constraints, while others don't. To start with the good news first, Obama has announced that some checks and balances will be restored to the NSA's inquiries under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Under current practices, the NSA doesn't need to get judicial approval to query the database of metadata it collects; it can simply make queries if it makes a self-determination that the query was "reasonable." This self-enforced reasonableness standard is functionally indistinguishable from having no standard at all. Obama announced that he was ending this practice: the database...

The Surveillance State of Tomorrow

Flickr/Bryan Chan
By the time you read this, President Obama will probably have finished his speech outlining some changes to the NSA's global information vacuum. According to early reports , he'll propose creating an independent body to hold the phone metadata that the NSA gathers, and forcing the agency to get some kind of approval (presumably from the FISA court) before accessing it. Which is all fine and good. But the real question is whether we set up procedures and systems that constrain the NSA from doing not just what we already know about, but the things we haven't yet heard of, and even more importantly, the kinds of surveillance that will become possible in the future. Just today, we learned from the Guardian that "The National Security Agency has collected almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks, and credit-card details, according to top-secret documents." I can't imagine that will be the last revelation...

The Scandalous Lack of Obama Administration Scandals

I f you ask many Republicans, they'll tell you that Barack Obama himself and the administration he leads are deeply, profoundly, fundamentally corrupt. It isn't just that they have the wrong values or the wrong policy priorities, but rather that they are practically a band of criminals bent on destroying America and unconcerned about what violations of law and morality they commit as they cut a swath of misery and destruction across our nation. For some on the right—the cynical politician, the carnival-barking radio host—these ideas are a tool to use in a partisan game. They understand that the picture is an absurd one, but they also know it's useful in keeping the rabble roused. But for many others, from ordinary voters to Republican lawmakers, it's something they sincerely believe. So five years into this presidency, where do we stand with the scandals that were supposed to lead to Barack Obama's downfall? The truth—no doubt a painful one for Republicans—is that there's almost no...

New Year, Same Intellectual Dishonesty

AP Images/NBC News
AP Images/NBC News The new year searches for a theme. Sometimes annual themes come ready-made; a presidential election looms, or a war. As far as can be seen from the American Rubicon called California, the theme (for the rest of you, anyway) that ushered in the new year is: It’s fucking cold, even as those of us on the West Coast lament every dip of the thermometer below 50. The media so abhors the vacuum of manmade conflict that it rushes to render even the weather controversial. Thus Fox Nation turns the designated polar vortex into a personal taunt of Al Gore—“What global warming?”—either truly or willfully ignorant that climate change is not about vanishing winters but meteorological extremes growing more so. Nonetheless this provided temporary solace to a right unsettled by reports that Obamacare might work after all. The truth is that it’s too early to tell about Obamacare, and arguments about its success or failure are pointless except for their reflection of wishful thinking...

Class War: The View From the Board Room

T he Vice-President for Governmental Affairs has just finished his report to the corporate board of directors. “Thanks, Ted,” says the Chairman. “You and your Washington staff have done a great job. Getting that little amendment inserted in the budget bill will save us at least $25 million next year. …. Questions or comments? Paul?” Paul, the hedge fund CEO: “I’m worried about the big picture down there in Washington, Ted. It’s a mess. Deficit out of control. The anti-business attitude. Not to mention incompetence. Can’t even run a website for their own health care program. Pathetic.” “Amen,” says Hank, who used to run a tobacco company. “What bugs me is Obama’s complaining about inequality. Just whips people up. Saw them last night on the TV news, in front of a McDonald’s somewhere, screaming for more money. Makes you sick. Want money? Get a job!” “Actually Hank, those people already have a job,” says Cliff from Silicon Valley. “And lucky to have it. Plenty more out there ready to...

The Doomed Wars

White House photo by Pete Souza.
Washington loves few things more than a tell-all memoir. Even if a memoir doesn't tell very much, the media will do their best to characterize it as scandalous and shocking. So it is with the book by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates which will soon be appearing in airport bookstores everywhere. From the excerpts that have been released, it sounds like Gates has plenty of praise for President Obama, and some criticisms that are not particularly biting. Sure, there's plenty of bureaucratic sniping and the settling of a few scores, but his criticisms (the Obama White House is too controlling, politics sometimes intrudes on national security) sound familiar. Gates' thoughts on Afghanistan, however, do offer us an opportunity to reflect on where we've come in that long war. The quote from his book that has been repeated the most concerns a meeting in March 2011 in which Obama expressed his frustration with how things were going in Afghanistan. "As I sat there," Gates writes, "I...

Kerry’s Middle East Grind

F or most who spend time watching and analyzing the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, weary cynicism is the default pose. It’s not entirely unjustified. Few conflicts have seen as many false starts and dashed hopes as the effort to negotiate an end to Israel’s occupation and create a Palestinian state. So the skepticism that greeted Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that he would take up the issue as one of the priorities of his tenure was not surprising. What was surprising was the vigor with which Kerry approached the issue from the get-go. Multiple visits to the region soon resulted in a re-introduction of the Arab Peace Initiative , in which Arab states promised full normalization with Israel in exchange for a resolution of the Palestinian issue, and, later in the summer, a re-start of talks, with Israelis and Palestinians both committing to stay in negotiations for at least nine months. The road hasn’t been an easy one. While all sides agreed not to speak to the press...

The Fed Transformed

AP Images/Charles Dharapak
AP Images/Charles Dharapak I t is a small miracle that on February 1, Janet Yellen will become chair of the Federal Reserve. She is not just the first woman to head America’s central bank but the first labor economist. While the Fed is ordinarily obsessed with inflation, Yellen has given equal or greater emphasis to unemployment. Yellen represents a break with the Wall Street–friendly senior Obama economic officials who promoted their former colleague Larry Summers for chair. Had Summers gotten the post, the Fed and Treasury would both have been in the hands of the same old boys’ club that coddled the big banks before and after the financial collapse of 2008. That the job went instead to Yellen means the Fed will be an independent power center, and somewhat to the left of the administration. With a four-year term as chair, Yellen will serve at least two years into the next presidency as well. The transformation of the Fed since the economic collapse of 2008, however, is far broader...

The Year in Preview: Obama's Last Stand

AP Images/Evan Vucci
M argaret Chase Smith, the pioneering Republican moderate senator from Maine, was asked by a reporter in the early 1950s what she would do if she awoke to find herself in the White House. She replied, “I’d go straight to Mrs. Truman and apologize. Then I’d go home.” Anyone trying to concoct an agenda for Barack Obama during his remaining 37 months in office should approach the task with similar modesty. The rocky terrain of 2013 is a reminder that life in the Oval Office usually becomes more dispiriting even as the furnishings grow more familiar. After five years, every two-term president (not just unequivocal failures like George W. Bush) has assembled a lengthy list of if-only and had-I-but-known regrets. As Obama’s average approval ratings have dipped to just above 40 percent in the polls (eerily similar to Bush’s numbers at an analogous point in his Oval Office tenure), the president is being offered more free advice than a puzzled do-it-yourselfer at Home Depot. Everyone has...

Four Takeaways from Yesterday's NSA Ruling

Flickr/passamaquoddy eagle
Flickr/Cliff Y esterday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon ruled that the National Security Agency's extensive collection of "metadata"—as revealed by Edward Snowden earlier this year—is likely to have violated the Fourth Amendment. Justice Leon stayed his ruling ordering the government to stop the warrantless surveillance of two plaintiffs pending a trial. Given the inevitable appeal, we're a long way from the end of this NSA program—even if Judge Leon rules again in favor of the plaintiffs. Not every legal challenge to the metadata program was successful. Judge Leon dismissed a challenge based on the theory that the NSA's program exceeded the statutory authority granted by Congress. The court ruled that it lacked the jurisdiction to hear the claim under the Administrative Procedures Act. Judge Leon did, however, find that he had jurisdiction to hear the constitutional claims against the program. "While Congress has great latitude to create statutory schemes like FISA," the...

Is It Already Too Late to Stop the NSA?

The revelations about the scope of National Security Agency surveillance from the documents released to the public by Edward Snowden have been so numerous and so extraordinary that I fear we may be becoming numb to them. That's partly because there's just been so much, one revelation after another to the point where the latest one doesn't surprise us anymore. It's also partly because mixed in with the genuinely distressing surveillance programs are some things that seem almost ridiculous, like the idea of NSA agents trying to unearth terrorist plots in World of Warcraft . But there are some basic facts about this whole affair that should make us all frightened. We can sum it up as follows: 1. The scope of the NSA's surveillance is far greater than almost anyone imagined. 2. Barack Obama is not only perfectly fine with that surveillance, he was perfectly fine with it being kept secret from the American public. 3. As much discussion and consternation as Snowden's revelations produced,...

Obama's Lie

Barack Obama is given to the long view, which comes in handy for a man at his particular nadir in this particular moment. More than the vexing and inexplicably botched launch of the Affordable Care Act, the president has been undone by ten words uttered enough times so as to feel exponential: If you like your health plan, you can keep it . This is the first time that reasonable people have caught the president telling an explicitly incontestable untruth, however small a percentage of insurance policies it may actually apply to, and therefore our wince-threshold with Obama is distinctly lower than with those who so often have said so many preposterous things about him for the past five years that long ago we exhausted winces in favor of twitches and spasms, until our outrage finally became catatonic. Accusations ever louder and ever growing of “socialist” and “Kenyan” have become background noise. The liar who lies once and badly—assuming the worst, which is that he knew better—...

Americans Suddenly Discovering How Insurance Works

Flickr/Eric Allix Rogers
It's been said to the point of becoming cliche that once Democrats passed significant health-care reform, they'd "own" everything about the American health-care system for good or ill. For some time to come, people will blame Barack Obama for health-care problems he had absolutely nothing to do with. But there's a corollary to that truism we're seeing play out now, which is that what used to be just "a sucky thing that happened to me" or "something about the way insurance works that I don't particularly like"—things that have existed forever—are now changing into issues , matters that become worthy of media attention and are attributed to policy choices, accurately or not. Before now, millions of Americans had health insurance horror stories. But they didn't have an organizing narrative around them, particularly one the news media would use as a reason to tell them. The latest has to do with the provider networks that insurance companies put together. This is something insurance...

The White House Press Corps Is as Mad as Hell: A Reprise

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
AP Photo Circumventing the Press 101 When Stephen Colbert gave the keynote address at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, he suggested to President Bush that he ought to hire him. "I think I would have made a fabulous press secretary," Colbert said, looking out at the assembled reporters. "I have nothing but contempt for these people." These days, a lot of people think the Obama administration is even more hostile to reporters and what they do than that of his predecessor. When it comes to the relationship between the White House and the men and women assigned to cover it, there are a few things that have been true in every recent administration. The new president takes office promising to be open, candid, and accessible. Not far into his tenure, he grows terribly frustrated with the media, believing they are too focused on trivia, too quick to assume the worst and focus on his missteps, and uninterested in his accomplishments. His staff works hard to find ways to get its...

Over-Interpreting Mundane Poll Results

So disillusioned he's just going to lie here until dinner. (Flickr/Corey Thrace)
Have the young turned on Barack Obama? That's the assertion coming out of a poll from Harvard's Institute of Politics, reported in the National Journal with the breathless headline, "Millenials Abandon Obama and Obamacare." "The results blow a gaping hole in the belief among many Democrats that Obama's two elections signaled a durable grip on the youth vote," writes Ron Fournier. In the poll, approval of the President among those 18-29 has fallen to 41 percent. Sounds terrible. But wait—what's his approval among all voters these days? About 41 percent . So is it possible we don't need a special, youth-oriented explanation of the latest movement in the polls? When there's a change in public opinion, it's tempting to pick out different demographic groups and impose on each of them some unique interpretation of what's happening. Here's what the poll's director told Garance Franke-Ruta: "People are disappointed because they are passionate," Della Volpe said. "They're passionate about...

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