Before yesterday's Super Bowl, President Obama sat for a ten-minute interview with Fox News' 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 Timesdescribed the interview as "an unpleasant duty that was more or less unavoidable," but in truth it was nothing of the sort. A solo interview with the president is a relatively rare privilege given to only a few journalists. I don't remember George W. Bush inviting Keith Olbermann to interview him in the White House. So what gives?
The 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.
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.
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 persistent pattern of lawlessness, his willingness to disregard the written law and instead enforce his own policies via executive fiat." Is there anything to this criticism? Is Obama more of a tyrant than, say, his immediate predecessor? Let's take a look.
Those hoping for a full-throated, legacy-defining speech from President Barack Obama at his State of the Union address last night were sorely disappointed. In what amounts to a grudging acknowledgment that turning back the clock on not just four, but 40 years of stagnating wages and declining economic mobility will require the cooperation of Congress and broad government intervention, the president focused on small-bore economic initiatives that he could accomplish without cooperation from Congress—most markedly, an increase the minimum-wage limit for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour.
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).
It 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 Kristallnach or Bashar al-Assad.
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 late 1980s. That is, it's radically different than the ACA, and it's horrible, immoral public policy.
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.
Yesterday, as Charlie Savage of the New York Timesreported, 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.
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.
You've seen it on CSI and other police procedurals a hundred times: the detectives take a surveillance photo and watch as their computer cycles through a zillion photos of perps and crooks until it blinks with a match, telling them who their suspect is. You may have known enough to realize that they can't actually do that—computerized face recognition isn't capable of taking a grainy, shadowed photo and identifying it positively as a particular person. Or at least they couldn't until recently. But the technology has been advancing rapidly, and now some law enforcement agencies are using powerful new software that can do just that, at least sometimes. It has a ways to go yet, but the question is when, not if, computers will be able to take the video that was shot of you as you walked down the sidewalk or browsed in a store and know exactly who you are.
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.
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 from the documents obtained by Edward Snowden. Do you find that disturbing? If not, imagine what it's going to look like ten or twenty years from now.