The Obama Administration

The Syria Debate Is Very Good for Some People

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
My assumption all along, one I'm still (uneasily) holding to, is that when the debate is over, Congress will give Obama the authority he's asking for to attack Syria, just as it has every other time a president has asked. (There have been a couple of occasions in which Congress voted against a military action, but in those cases the president hadn't actually requested the vote; they were congressional protests against something that had already begun.) But a congressional rebuke, particularly in the House, is starting to look like a real possibility. This is a Congress unlike any that came before it, and the unusual nature of this proposed action—offered mostly as a punishment for something that already happened, with barely a claim that it will do much if anything to stop future massacres so long as they're done with conventional weapons—may combine to set a new historical precedent. It was pretty remarkable to see Republican members of Congress yesterday yelling at John Kerry about...

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...

Obama Administration Failing (So Far) to Convince the Public On Syria

We're just beginning to embark on something we only do every few years: have a real, national debate on whether we should start another war. Okay, so this isn't a full-scale war, at least not from our end; to hear the administration tell it, the whole thing could be over in a day or two. But Congress will be officially coming back into session on Monday, and at that point they'll be talking about little else for a couple of weeks. It'll be dominating the news, unless a young singer horrifies the nation by dancing suggestively, requiring us all to drop what we're doing and lament the debased state of America's moral fiber. So far anyway, it's pretty clear that most Americans don't think a military strike against Syria is a good idea. That in itself is unusual; you'd expect at the very least to see a closely divided public. The problem the administration confronts is that there seems to be no one unambiguously in favor of this action. Democrats otherwise inclined to support the...

Information Sharing Is Caring

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster M any members of Congress are either yahoos who couldn’t find Syria on a map or partisan hacks who make policy choices purely based on political expediency. And yet: The best thing about President Barack Obama’s decision to ask Congress to authorize a strike against the government of President Bashar Assad is that it increases the chances that the eventual road taken by the United States in Syria will be a good one. In fact, cases such as this one demonstrate the advantages of a more democratic system when it comes to achieving smart policy over a system which relies purely on the rule of experts. The problem for the presidency is always one of information. How do presidents know what policy to follow? In almost all cases, the president cannot fall back on his own personal knowledge. And, as with most presidents, Barack Obama’s personal expertise was quite limited before he entered the White House. So in the first instance, Obama must turn to the departments...

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...

The Republican Team Effort on Obamacare Obstruction

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, you have to give Republicans credit for sheer sticktoitiveness. They tried to defeat the law, but it passed. They tried to get the Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional, but that didn't work. So now, as the open-enrollment period for the exchanges approaches on October 1, they're thinking creatively to find new ways to sabotage the law. Sure, at this point that means screwing over people who need insurance , but sometimes there's unavoidable collateral damage when you're fighting a war. Their latest target is the Obamacare "navigators." Because not just the law but the insurance market itself can be pretty complicated, the ACA included money to train and support people whose job it would be to help people get through this new system, answering consumers' questions and guiding them through the process. Grants have been given to hospitals, community groups, charities like the United Way, churches, and the like in the 34 states that are...

War Powers for Dummies

Nixon and Kissinger meet with John Wayne, probably to talk about how Congress is a bunch of no-good varmints. (White House photo)
Congress is now debating—informally until they return to session on Monday, formally thereafter—whether we should take military action against the Syrian government. But the Obama administration has made clear its belief that it doesn't actually need congressional approval for the strikes it plans to undertake. Are they right? Herewith, a brief explainer on presidents, Congress, and war powers: Doesn't the Constitution give Congress this power? The Constitution gives Congress the sole power to declare war, but it also says that the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. So the way presidents have usually responded is simply by not bothering to ask for a declaration of war when they want to begin a military undertaking. In fact, the last time Congress declared war was in 1942, when it did so against Romania, or as it was known then, Rumania. There were six separate war declarations in World War II, one for each country in the Axis (see here for more detail on our 11 war...

Reefer Madness: The Guide to New Federal Pot Policy

AP Images/Elaine Thompson
AP Images/Elaine Thompson S ince Washington and Colorado voters passed ballot initiatives in November that legalized marijuana in their states, the shadow of the federal government has loomed large. As the months went by and each state went about setting up systems of regulation to determine the minutiae of the policies, there was no word from the Department of Justice (DOJ) on how—if at all—it would respond to these new state laws that directly violate the Controlled Substances Act. Most pressing was whether the DOJ would challenge the laws in court. Both states could finally breathe a metaphorical sigh of relief last week when the Department released a series of guidelines, more than nine months after the initiatives passed, and it became clear the DOJ would not take the states to court. In a memo to U.S. attorneys, Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote that so long as the state policies did not interfere with federal priorities, U.S. attorneys should not focus on prosecuting...

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...

One Small Step for Pot

Flickr/Dank Depot
Yesterday, the Department of Justice finally announced how it was going to deal with the fact that voters in Colorado and Washington passed initiatives legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and the result is surprisingly reasonable. In case you haven't been following this issue, those who'd like to see more enlightened policies on marijuana, which is currently classified as a Schedule 1 drug supposedly as dangerous as heroin or cocaine, have been terribly disappointed in the Obama administration. Could this be a real meaningful change? Despite early suggestions that they wouldn't waste time and resources going after marijuana and a 2009 Justice Department memo instructing U.S. Attorneys to make it a low priority, the war on pot has continued unabated in the Obama years. As Ryan Grim and Ryan Reilly described it earlier this year, "Since the memo, the Department of Justice has cracked down hard on medical marijuana, raiding hundreds of dispensaries, while the IRS and other federal...

Will Congress Continue to Refuse Its War Powers Responsibilities?

AP Photo
Matt Duss has an excellent piece for the Prospect explaining why military action against Syria is probably a terrible idea on policy grounds. In addition to the question of whether the policy is wise, however, it's worth considering whether a unilateral decision to attack Syria by the president would be legal. At the outset, I should make clear that I'm talking purely about legality under domestic law; I'll leave the question of whether military action against Syria is justified under international law to others . I also don't subscribe to the the most formalist conception of the president's military power, which holds that any non-emergency action by the president requires a congressional declaration of war. Military action accompanied by a congressional authorization for military action (as with the second Iraq War) should be considered clearly constitutional, and I'm inclined to think that presidential initiations of military force in the face of congressional silence are...

The Law That Must Not Be Named

This is not actually a skit from "Portlandia."
Talking Points Memo has done a service and rounded up a bunch of the ads states will be airing to promote the health-insurance exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act, and they provide an interesting window into how the exchanges in particular, and the ACA in general, is going to look to the public. The first thing you notice is that none of ads mentions the words "Affordable Care Act, let alone "Obamacare." A couple of them use words like "official" to denote that this is sponsored by the state, but others just make it seem like a consumer marketplace that might not have anything to do with government at all. And many of the spots look like they were produced by the state tourism board, with quick cuts between picturesque scenes from all around the state and poetic words about how our state is awesome and we're all terrific people. For instance, this one from Oregon barely mentions healthcare at all; it's just a friendly Portland hipster musician bounding around the state...

Some Context for Our Upcoming Bombing Campaign

Flickr/Christopher Ebdon
It seems obvious at this point that 1) The Obama administration is going to drop some bombs on something or someone in Syria, even if no one is yet sure what or whom; and 2) This is something they'd rather not do. Back when George W. Bush was president, he and his team were practically giddy with excitement over the Iraq War, and much was made of the fact that nearly all the top people whose loins were burning to blow stuff up and send other people's children to fight had themselves worked hard to avoid serving in Vietnam. But the truth is that whether we're talking about a Republican administration filled with eager armchair warriors or a Democrat administration filled with peaceniks, every American president eventually scrambles the jets and orders the bomb bays loaded. And when you step back to look at all our military adventures, every invasion and police action and no-fly zone, you can't help wonder whether we'll ever see a presidency in which we don't project our military force...

Heroes "Without Rank or Wealth or Title or Fame"

President Obama's speech at the event marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington will almost certainly be remembered as one of his most important. Presidents only get so many opportunities to speak at events like this one, laden with the trappings of civil religion and what we might think of as a contested consensus. That's a contradiction, I know, but I think it fits. The civil-rights struggle of the 1960s was among the most divisive controversies in American history, yet today there's no more argument about who was right. Even the National Review , at the time a vigorous defender of the privilege of the white South to continue oppressing black people ( see here for some details) today claims Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of their own: "The civil-rights revolution, like the American revolution, was in a crucial sense conservative," they write, and they're not the only ones on the right trying to make the same case. That's both consensus and contestation right there, the...

No Empire Strikes Back

The days of unilateral imperial action are gone—American power is not enough to solve the conflicts in Egypt and Syria.  

AP Images/British Official photo
AP Images/British Official Photo A story from the Middle East's past to help understand its present: One evening in Cairo, British Ambassador Sir Miles Lampson arrived at the royal palace accompanied by the commander of the British army in Egypt and "stalwart military officers armed to the teeth." While he waited to meet King Farouk, Lampson heard "the rumble of [British] tanks and armoured cars, taking up positions round the palace." It was February 1942 ; Nazi general Erwin Rommel's Afrikakorps threatened to conquer Egypt, and the British wanted a government firmly in the Allied camp. Lampson demanded that the young, Axis-leaning king abdicate, but accepted a compromise: Farouk appointed the head of the Wafd Party, Mustafa al-Nahhas Pasha, to head a pro-British government. "So much for the events of the evening, which I confess I could not have enjoyed more," wrote Sir Miles, reporting to London on his coup d'état. In the days of empires, superpowers could deal with Middle Eastern...

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