Barack Obama

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...

Crazy Is as Crazy Does

Four years ago, Democratic representatives went home for the August recess and found themselves under assault from angry Tea Partiers, who took over town meetings with shouting and fist-shaking over the Affordable Care Act in particular, and more generally, the theft of their country by the foreign Muslim usurper Barack Obama. This August, however, it's Republicans who are under attack by some of those same people. At one town meeting after another, hard-right Republican House members are being confronted by constituents accusing them of not being quite doctrinaire and reckless enough (see here , or here , or here ). Once again the immediate topic is Obamacare, but now the question isn't whether the law should pass, but whether Republicans should shut down the government in a futile attempt to defund it. The members catching the most heat are those who argue that shutting down the government is useless, because Barack Obama is never going to sign a budget that defunds his greatest...

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...

Eternal Summers

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite N ow that President Obama has made it clear in a meeting with the House Democratic Caucus that he is standing by his man, what comes next in the Larry Summers/Janet Yellen/Federal Reserve psychodrama? Will Obama damn the torpedoes and pick Summers to chair the Fed? Will he conclude that Summers has too much baggage and give the job to Yellen—or go with a third candidate? What’s clear now is that Obama himself would like to appoint Summers. The lobbying for Summers by the group of Robert Rubin protégés around the president has been internalized by Obama himself. But Obama insists that he still hasn’t made up his mind. In the end, the president’s decision will boil down to two questions. Can Summers be confirmed? And even if he can win confirmation after a hard-fought vote, would the process unearth such messy information that the White House would conclude that it’s best not to try? The letter by 19 Senate Democrats supporting Janet Yellen is probably the...

Not Much, But Better than Nothing

President Obama yesterday in Chattanooga with Amazon workers. (White House photo/Chuck Kennedy)
President Obama offered a "grand bargain" yesterday, and although it wasn't particularly grand, it was a bargain: Republicans would get a lowering of the corporate income tax rate, something they've wanted for a long time, and Democrats would get some new investments in infrastructure, job training, and education. Inevitably, Republicans rejected it out of hand. "It's just a further-left version of a widely panned plan he already proposed two years ago, this time with extra goodies for tax-and-spend liberals," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. At this point, Obama could offer to close the E.P.A., eliminate all inheritance taxes, and rename our nation's capital "Reagan, D.C." if Republicans would also agree to give one poor child a sandwich, and they'd say no, because that would be too much big government. Just as inevitably, in-the-know politicos are wondering, why does he bother with this stuff if he knows what the result will be? Didn't we get enough of this I'm-the-...

The Slow Burn Nature of Climate Politics

During the dog days of summer, most peoples' lazier impulses take over, even more so in Washington, a muggy city built ill-advisedly on top of a swamp. President Obama, however, seems immune to the soporific effects of the heat and is filling up the days with speech after speech of ambitious agenda-making. Last week saw the kick-off of a new five-point economic plan. A few weeks before that, in a speech mostly forgotten by the amnesiatic chattering class (but not so far away as his national security speech, which seems so long ago to be nearly nonexistent), Obama laid out his administration's plan for the environment, a distillation of his views on climate change heard before only in soundbites. Much of that speech was devoted to initiatives that, like the Affordable Care Act, will burn on a slow fuse. EPA standards and weaning the country off coal are important, but we won't see how they affect the environment until decades from now. Because of the tortoise-like pace of climate...

New Look, Same Great ... Boring Taste

In 2005, Barack Obama delivered a commencement address at Knox College in Illinois. It was one of the clearest expressions of progressive ideology a national figure had delivered in decades, an argument against "Social Darwinism" and the trickle-down policies that had gripped Washington for years in favor of a realization that our fates are bound together—and that government's policies should reflect that. It told the story of American history as one in which the forces of radical individualism faced off against those who wanted to act collectively for the benefit of all, and those who believe we're all in it together triumphed. He returned to Knox College today to deliver another speech on the economy. This one was much longer, clocking in at over 5,000 words. There were echoes of that speech eight years ago, as when he said, "We haven't just wanted success for ourselves—we've wanted it for our neighbors, too. When we think about our own communities, we're not a mean people, we're...

Brave Words, Awaiting a Stronger Program

AP Photo/Susan Walsh P resident Barack Obama gave a fine speech at Knox College, the scene of one of his most effective pre-presidential moments—a 2005 commencement address he gave as an Illinois senator. Now we need to see whether he follows up with a clear and comprehensive program and brave politics to match. On the plus side, he did not shrink from calling out the Republicans for their sheer negativity and their embrace of trickle down economics. If you ask some of these Republicans about their economic agenda, or how they’d strengthen the middle class, they’ll shift the topic to “out-of-control” government spending—despite the fact that we have cut the deficit by nearly half as a share of the economy since I took office. Or they’ll talk about government assistance for the poor, despite the fact that they’ve already cut early education for vulnerable kids and insurance for people who’ve lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Or they’ll bring up Obamacare, despite the fact...

The Privilege of Whiteness

flickr/shaire productions
A s a biracial child who spent part of his youth abroad, Barack Obama learned the feeling of otherness and became attuned to how he was perceived by those around him. As a politician, he knew well that many white people saw him as a vehicle for their hopes of a post-racial society. Even if those hopes were somewhat naïve, they came from a sincere and admirable desire, and he was happy to let those sentiments carry him along. Part of the bargain, though, was that he had to be extremely careful about how he talked about race, and then only on the rarest of occasions. His race had to be a source of hope and pride—for everybody—but not of displeasure, discontent, or worst of all, a grievance that would demand redress. No one knew better than him that everything was fine only as long as we all could feel good about Barack Obama being black. So when he made his unexpected remarks about Trayvon Martin on Friday, Obama was stepping into some dangerous territory. By talking about his own...

Obama's Moment of Introspection

Today, Barack Obama did something he has only done a few times in the years he has been on the national stage: He talked about race. In an extemporaneous statement to White House reporters, Obama discussed the reaction to the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. He spent the first third of his remarks talking about where African Americans were coming from, in an implicit plea for empathy from white Americans. He didn't accuse anyone of ill will, but he did in effect say, "Here's how black people are feeling and why," in an attempt to explain the sources of people's disappointment and pain. After that, he talked about what government might do to make these kinds of tragedies less likely—training for police officers, and perhaps a rethinking of "stand your ground" laws if they make conflicts more likely. He ended on a hopeful note, saying, "as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don't want us to lose sight that things...

Discussing Trayvon Martin, Obama Embraces his Blackness

White House
When President Obama issued a pro forma statement following last week’s verdict in the Zimmerman trial, there was some disappointment—“Why didn’t he say more?” It only takes a small step back to see the answer; not only would it have been inappropriate for the president to question the decision of the jury, but given wide outrage at the ruling, it could have inflamed passions on both sides. But it isn’t out of bounds for Obama to speak on the meaning of Trayvon Martin, which he did this afternoon, during a White House press briefing. And unlike his earlier statement, this was a frank and heartfelt take on the racial issues surrounding the shooting and the trial. Which, to be honest, came as a surprise. Barack Obama’s entire political career has been about de-racializing his personal identity. Yes, he was a black senator from Illinois, but for white audiences at least, he wasn’t a black one. It’s why the Jeremiah Wright controversy was so dangerous for his candidacy—it emphasized his...

Transatlantic Trouble

How much has America's spying on European allies damaged the transatlantic trade deal once thought to be one of Obama's best opportunities for shaping his foreign policy legacy?

AP Images/Charles Dharapak
Recent revelations that the U.S. government had been spying on European allies continue to rile public sentiment on the continent, just as officials from both sides of the Atlantic sit down for talks in Washington on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a wide-ranging deal that the Obama administration has been pushing as a key foreign policy initiative. If successful, TTIP would deepen the economic ties between North America and the European Union and represent the biggest trade deal in over two decades. But with public trust in the United States ebbing throughout the core countries of the European Union, President Obama will probably have to do more than simply downplay the scandal as a hyped-up, misunderstood policy detail. Old school Atlanticists have long touted the wisdom of deeper economic integration between the United States and the European Union, which is already vast and significant. U.S.-EU trade in goods and services totals about one trillion...

How the Conservative Media Are Eating Up the Zimmerman Trial

George Zimmerman during his interview with no-nonsense journalist Sean Hannity.
George Zimmerman's trial in the shooting of Trayvon Martin is coming to a close. For what it's worth, I think he'll probably get acquitted, since 1) the lack of any eyewitnesses leaves room for doubt, and 2) my impression is that in Florida it's perfectly legal to pursue somebody, confront them, and then when the confrontation turns physical and you begin to lose the fight, shoot them in the chest. You know—self defense. In any case, conservative media are feasting on the Zimmerman trial (as are some other media). Their basic storyline goes like this: Trayvon Martin was a thug. George Zimmerman's gated community was beset by roving gangs of vicious black teen criminals. Zimmerman was in the right. And most critically, this whole thing is being drummed up by racial provocateurs, most especially Barack Obama and Eric Holder, to continue their ongoing war on white people, who are the real victims of racism in America today. Let's take, for instance, this little story. After Martin's...

What Happened to the Obama Scandals?

flickr/United States Government Work
flickr/United States Government Work A few months ago, political scientist Brendan Nyhan started warning that Barack Obama was due for a major scandal. Nyhan had analyzed previous two-term presidents and determined that by this stage of his second term, particularly with low approval ratings among the opposition party and a lack of major stories dominating the news for long periods, a president stands a strong chance of being engulfed in the kind of controversy that can hobble or even undo a presidency. Nothing was certain, of course—Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton didn't see their all-consuming scandals until the sixth year of their presidencies, which would give Obama a few months—but conditions were ripe. And for a few weeks there, it seemed like the prediction would come true. The news media became simultaneously fascinated with three separate issues—the attack in Benghazi, I.R.S. scrutiny of conservative groups, and Justice Department surveillance of reporters—and it seemed like...

Solving (or Not) a Problem Like the Middle East

When George W. Bush delivered his State of the Union address in 2005, a number of Republican members of Congress showed up with a finger colored purple, in solidarity with the Iraqi voters who were required to dip their fingers in ink upon leaving the polls. Iraq had held an election, the purple digits testified, and therefore invading two years prior had been a swell idea, the transition to democracy was on its way, and everything would turn out great. The triumphalism turned out to be a bit premature; thousands of Americans were still to die there, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and the country is riven by religious strife and violence to this day. As if we needed any reminder that an election does not a democracy make, Egypt's government now appears to be disintegrating, just a year after it held its first post-Mubarak election. Without strong civic institutions and no tradition of resolving disputes at the ballot box, the extended transition from dictatorship to...

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