Barack Obama

Obama Punts to Congress on Syria—and Scores

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
AP Photo/Evan Vucci P resident Obama just might pull off his proposed Syria attack. And a limited strike to punish Assad, take out much of his air force, and deter future chemical attacks just might be the least bad of the available options, none of which are good. The strategy might also be astute domestic politics, since it exposes the opportunistic fault lines in the Republican Party and could cast the president as a strong leader for once. One intriguing question that follows from the Syria politicking is why Obama occasionally seems so effective at foreign policy and the attendant domestic politics, and then appears so consistently feckless and disappointing when it comes to domestic policy and politics writ large. More on that in a moment. Six days ago, Obama looked like he’d wimped out again. He had overruled most of his staff, who were counseling a quick strike based on his commander-in-chief authority. Instead, Obama, a reluctant warrior, punted to Congress. The surprise move...

Let's Not Give the White House a Blank Check in Syria

With Congress highly unlikely to take the initiative, Barack Obama did something unexpected and good for American constitutionalism: he asked for congressional approval for military action against Syria. His recognition that warmaking is fundamentally a shared rather than a unilateral presidential power is most welcome. But this victory for a more rational policy process will ring hollow if Congress gives the Obama administration everything it's asking for. Admittedly, not everyone sees Obama asking Congress to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities as a good thing. You may remember the second Bush administration from such events as ... oh, I don't know ... the several catastrophic foreign policy blunders that happened under its watch. Rather than permanently hiding their heads in shame, several architects of these military and human rights disasters are publicly complaining about Obama's turn from presidential unilateralism. John Yoo, the arbitrary torture advocate and producer...

Syria Turns into a Political Story

President Obama announcing his intention to seek congressional approval for strikes on Syria. (White House video)
So last night I was watching NBC News, and a report on Syria came on, in which Andrea Mitchell spent five minutes talking about whether going to Congress for affirmation of his decision to attack the Syrian government makes Barack Obama "look weak." Mitchell is the network's "Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent," which is what you call someone who stays in nice hotels and gets talking points from top officials when she travels with the secretary of State to foreign countries. The news is full of this kind of discussion, about whether Obama is weak, whether he "bungled" the decision-making process, how this might affect the 2014 elections, and pretty much anything except whether a strike on Syria is genuinely a good idea or not. Here's The Washington Post 's Chris Cillizza talking up the "massive gamble" Obama is taking—not a gamble on what will happen in Syria, mind you, but a political gamble. Here's Chuck Todd and the rest of the NBC politics crew gushing that this is "a great...

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...

Paul LePage's Kanye Moment

Eight years ago, during a star-studded telethon to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina, Kanye West looked into the camera and said, "George Bush doesn't care about black people." It was a little unfair—nothing in Bush's public life suggested any animus toward black people, and you could make a stronger case that it was poor people Bush didn't care about; the ones in New Orleans just happened to be black. We couldn't help thinking of that today after learning about the latest controversial statement from Maine's buffoonish Tea Party governor, Paul LePage. According to the Portland Press-Herald , LePage told the crowd at a Republican fundraiser that "Obama could have been the best president ever if he had highlighted his biracial heritage. LePage said the president hasn't done that because he hates white people." The paper quoted two Republican lawmakers who confirmed LePage's statement, both of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. LePage denies having said it,...

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...

Duck Dynasty Goes to Washington?

Republicans got some bad news today when hot political commodity, Willie Robertson, said he was too busy to run for the House seat that will be vacated when Louisiana Representative Rodney Alexander leaves to join Governor Bobby Jindal's cabinet. What's that? You have no idea who Willie Robertson is? Then you must be a liberal Northeastern elitist, because Willie Robertson is one of the stars of Duck Dynasty , the reality TV show/bestselling book generator/all-around cultural juggernaut that has stolen America's heart. Robertson, with his good humor, air of relative competence, and American flag bandana always firmly wrapped around his head, sounded like just the man to help Republicans … well, help them do whatever it is they do in Washington these days. But alas, he had the sense to spurn their entreaties , so the search goes on. There's still hope though. You probably heard about the Missouri state fair rodeo that recently featured a clown in a Barack Obama mask, with the announcer...

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...

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