The Obama Administration

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...

On Inequality, Obama's Words Aren't Enough

President Obama speaking Wednesday on inequality.
There are times, like the speech Barack Obama gave yesterday on economic inequality, when he reminds liberals of what we found so appealing about him. The address can stand among the most progressive statements of his presidency. Not for the first time, Obama declared inequality "the defining challenge of our time," and articulated an eloquent case, based in American history and values, for the damage it does and why we need to confront it. So why was I left feeling less than enthusiastic? Because over the last five years, Obama has succeeded in doing so little to address the problem. "Making sure our economy works for every American," he said, is "why I ran for president. It was the center of last year's campaign. It drives everything I do in this office." If that's true, then his presidency hasn't been particularly successful. Now granted, it's not as though he hasn't been awfully busy. And he still has some notable achievements in this area, none greater than the Affordable Care...

The Contraception-Mandate Cases Aren’t Really About Contraception

Ap Images/Tony Gutierrez
Earlier today, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear not one, but two challenges to the Obama administration’s contraception mandate; they’ll be heard together in an action-packed hour of oral arguments sometime in the spring. Both cases deal with conservatives’ ever-growing penchant for anthropomorphizing corporations—this time, the justices will decide whether companies can be exempted from the mandate to provide birth control at no cost to employees because of the owners’ religious beliefs. Oddly enough, neither of the business owners involved are Catholic, even though the first objections to the contraception mandate were raised by Catholic leaders, who didn’t want religiously affiliated hospitals and schools to provide birth control, which the Catholic hierarchy considers taboo. One case— Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores , documented extensively for the Prospect by Sarah Posner earlier this summer —deals with an arts-and-crafts chain owned by evangelical Christians. The...

Drone War Testimonials

A reporter sits down with one Pakistani family who traveled more than 7,000 miles to tell their story to Congress—only five representatives showed up to listen. 

Humna Bhojani
Humna Bhojani The Rehmans: Nabila, Rafiq, and Zubair. T wo beams of light came down from the drone lingering over the field where they had been gathering okra and hit Nabila’s grandmother, Mamana Bibi. The earth shuddered. Nabila fell; terrified, she stumbled into a run. Blood was gushing from her arm. She wrapped her red chaddar (head covering) around the shrapnel wound; moments later it was soaked through. Through the smoke, Nabila caught a glimpse of Mamana’s brown sandal. She passed out. The day Mamana was killed, October 24 th 2012, was a beautiful one in the North Waziristan village of Tapi in Pakistan. A few clouds sprinkled over the bright blue sky—perfect weather for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which was the next day. For Muslims, Eid al-Adha is the holiest day of the year, celebrating the sacrifice Abraham made. “They have told me that Eid is like Christmas,” Zubair, Nabila’s, 13-year-old brother said during his testimony at a Congressional briefing on October 29,...

Bibi's Agreement Anxiety Disorder

T o explain Benjamin Netanyahu's frenzied reaction to the Geneva agreement on Iran's nuclear program, let me begin with the stack of brown cardboard boxes under my wife's desk. Each of the five cartons contains a gas mask and related paraphernalia for a member of my family to use in the event of a chemical-weapons attack. They were delivered last January, as part of the gradual government effort to prepare every household in Israel for a rain of Syrian missiles. I suppose that having "defense kits" in the house could be macabre, but what we usually notice is that they're a nuisance: another thing on which to bang your toe in an overstuffed city flat. What's more, they're apparently an obsolete nuisance. A couple of weeks ago, the usual nameless military sources told the local media that the Defense Ministry would recommend ending production of gas masks for civilians. According to the leaks, intelligence assessments said that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons...

Insurance Companies Got You Down? Stupid Obamacare!

White House photo by Pete Souza
It has been said many times over the last few years that now that Democrats successfully passed a comprehensive overhaul of American health insurance, they own the health-care system, for good or ill. Every problem anyone has with health care will be blamed on Barack Obama, whether his reform had anything to do with it or not. Your kid got strep throat? It's Obama's fault! Doctor left a sponge in your chest cavity? Stupid Obama! Grandma died after a long illness at the age of 97? Damn you, Obama! OK, so maybe it won't be quite as bad as that, but pretty close. Here's an instructive case in exactly how this plays out. Take a look at this article that ran in yesterday's Washington Post , telling how in order to keep premiums down and attract customers, some insurers are limiting their networks. "As Americans have begun shopping for health plans on the insurance exchanges," the article tells us, "they are discovering that insurers are restricting their choice of doctors and hospitals in...

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