The Obama Administration

Not Too Shabby So Far: Obama's Judicial Legacy

flickr/The Library of Congress

Earlier this week, the White House announced that President Barack Obama would name nominees to fill three vacant seats on the D.C. Circuit Court, touching off a new battle between the White House and Republicans over filibusters and presidential privileges. Despite the fact that appointing judges is one of the powers given to every president by the Constitution, some Republicans reacted as though Obama were doing something horrible by fulfilling this obligation. (You'd almost think they didn't accept the legitimacy of his presidency.) In any case, this argument is likely to heat up over the next few weeks, so we might benefit from some context as charges and counter-charges start flying.

Republicans Looking Sheepish On Obama Court Nominees


One of the biggest criticisms activist liberals have had of the Obama administration is that they have not moved aggressively to put their stamp on the federal judiciary. While there has certainly been Republican obstruction of Obama nominees, in many cases the administration hasn't even bothered to nominate anyone to open seats. There are currently 82 vacancies on the federal bench, and in 58 of those, the administration has offered no nominee.

So it's good news that they have announced that they are about to offer nominations for the three vacancies on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, widely considered the second most important court in the nation, since it hears many critical cases involving the scope of government power. It looks like the administration is betting that the more nominations they put up at the same time, the more attention the issue will get if Republicans try to block them, and the more attention it gets, the more difficult Republican filibusters will be to maintain.

If you listen to what Republicans are saying so far, you'll notice they're not making the same argument they have in the past...

King Obama the Magical

AP Photo/John Bazemore

Brendan Nyhan’s “Green Lantern” theory of presidential politics—the (incorrect) belief that when things don’t turn out how a president wants it was because he didn’t want it deeply enough—has been all over the Internet lately. And, no matter how false that image of the presidency might be, it’s probably not going away. The idea of the president as a Magical King serves everyone’s interests—beginning with man in the Oval Office himself.

Republican Overreach, Coming Soon

You can bet hey'll be hearing from these folks. (Flickr/SS&SS)

A number of people have asked whether the Republicans will overreach in their reaction to the current collection of scandal-ish controversies (by the way, someone really needs to come up with a name that encompasses them all). The answer to that question is, of course they will. Try to remember who we're talking about here. Overreaching is their thing. Congress will be going home this weekend, and I'll bet the Republicans are going to come back from their recess reassured that their constituents really, really want them to pursue Barack Obama to the ends of the earth. I'll explain why in a moment, but in the meantime the National Journal has details on their strategy:

The Forever War, Still Forever

White House photo by Eric Draper

Today, President Barack Obama gives what has been billed as a major address on the status of the "war on terror," a term that the Obama administration doesn't use but that is still how we refer to the efforts the United States takes around the world fighting al-Qaeda, those affiliated with al-Qaeda, those who might be affiliated with someone who is affiliated with al-Qaeda, and pretty much any nongovernmental entity that looks at us funny.

Whatever you call it, the war on terror is our endless war, just as George W. Bush set it out to be. With a Congress and most of a public willing to let him do almost anything he wanted, Bush's administration told us all those years ago that we were fighting not al-Qaeda or even terrorism but "terror" itself. In other words, our war would be not against a group of people or even a tactic that anyone could use but against our own fear. And that's a war we can never win.

Nevertheless, when Barack Obama was running for president, you might have thought that five years into his presidency there wouldn't be much of a War on Terror left. Most visibly, he wanted to get us out of Iraq, then wrap up Afghanistan. Mission, well, sort of maybe eventually accomplished. But the War on Terror lives on, at our airports, in government budgets, and in our laws.

A Week of Bleak Metaphors

Tornados, IRS scandal, Benghazi scrutiny, and wire-tapping; the country has seen its fill of bad omens and forboding in recent days. What's Obama to do to change the narrative?

AP Images/Brennan Linsley

This was going to be the week when we learned what last week meant, which is turning out to be true in a way we didn’t anticipate barely 72 hours ago. We were going to learn whether last week was the beginning of a crisis that would fatally wound if not kill the Obama presidency or if it was merely the most egregious manifestation of right-wing bad faith. Instead the cataclysmic Oklahoma tornado, along with the gathering politics of the scandal surrounding the Internal Revenue Service, inevitably engage the American public in a consideration of government itself—what it’s good for and what it isn’t, how it serves us and how it betrays us.

Can the President Create a "Culture"?

Margaret Mead, who would not have bothered to study the administration's culture. (Photo by Edward Lynch, Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

As you may have noticed, the biggest problem with the IRS scandal (from the perspective of Republicans) is that it remains stubbornly removed from the President himself. It's all well and good to get a couple of scalps from mid-level managers, but for it to be a real presidential scandal you need to implicate the guy in the Oval Office in the wrongdoing. Confronted with Obama's non-involvement, conservatives have turned to vague and airy accusations about the "culture" Obama has created.

Bad Faith and Budget Politics

Obama has to do business with people who cannot be trusted to own up to their side of a deal.

AP Images/Jacquelyn Martin

Compromise is often an unhappily revealing art. “Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are,” the philosopher Avishai Margalit writes. In finding compromises with Republicans on the federal budget, Democrats need to remember not only who they are but who the voters depend on them to be.

Bin Laden Photos to Stay Hidden

This will remain Bin Laden's enduring image.

Remember the Bin Laden photos? When the al Qaeda leader was killed two years ago, people immediately began asking whether the world would ever get to see an image of his body. At first, then-CIA director Leon Panetta said photos would be released, but President Obama overruled him. Yesterday, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in a lawsuit brought by the conservative group Judicial Watch that the government may continue to keep the photos hidden from public view.

At the time, I argued that a photo should be released—not every photo that everyone took of the body, but perhaps one shot of it being lowered into the ocean in a respectful ceremony. I went on NPR's On the Media and debated the question with The New Yorker's Philip Gourevitch, who treated me like I was some kind of contemptible ghoul for suggesting such a thing, but I made what I thought was a perfectly reasonable argument. Here's an excerpt of the columnI wrote:

Naming Names in the Dodd Frank Mess

It’s not just faceless Wall Street lobbyists who are doing the damage; a guy named Mark Wetjen has some explaining to do.

AP Images/Mark Lennihan

As we trudge through the swamp of disappointment that characterizes Dodd-Frank implementation, the liberal commentariat has lately seized upon a new meme; Wall Street lobbyists are responsible for gutting Dodd-Frank behind closed doors. Big-pocketed firms deploy phalanxes of clever lawyers and influence peddlers that easily outpace reformers, ensuring that the regulations ultimately written are sufficiently de-fanged to allow the financial industry to conduct their business with few, if any, restrictions. The lobbyists, and mostly the lobbyists alone, bear responsibility.

Doesn't Anybody Here Know How to Run a Conspiracy?

Victoria Nuland's actual email.

In case you've forgotten, what took Benghazi from "a thing Republicans keep whining about" to "Scandal!!!" was when some emails bouncing around between the White House, the CIA, and the State Department were passed to Jonathan Karl of ABC last Friday. The strange thing about it was that the emails didn't contain anything particularly shocking—no crimes admitted, no malfeasance revealed. It showed 12 different versions of talking points as everybody edited them, but why this made it a "scandal" no one bothered to say. My best explanation is that just the fact of obtaining previously hidden information, regardless of its content, is so exciting to reporters that they just ran with it. They're forever trying to get a glimpse behind the curtain, and when they do, they almost inevitably shout "Aha!" no matter what.

But then the problem comes. The White House decided to release a whole batch of emails related to the subject, and when they were examined, it turns out that what was given to Karl had been altered. Altered by whom, you ask? Altered by Karl's source: Republican staffers on the House Oversight Committee, which had been given the emails by the White House (CBS's Major Garrett confirmed this yesterday).

Let me just explain quickly in case you haven't been following this, and then we'll discuss what it means.

President Obama Will Not Be "Going Bulworth"

Being president is hard, and often downright unpleasant, particularly when there are scandals, legitimate or otherwise, swirling about and distracting your attention from what you'd like to be accomplishing. I'm sure it's particularly frustrating when the opposition party is so intransigent that negotiating with them is pointless. Right now Barack Obama's presidency is at something of a low point, but nevertheless, it was a bit surprising to see this, from a New York Times story this morning: "Yet Mr. Obama also expresses exasperation. In private, he has talked longingly of 'going Bulworth,' a reference to a little-remembered 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a senator who risked it all to say what he really thought. While Mr. Beatty's character had neither the power nor the platform of a president, the metaphor highlights Mr. Obama's desire to be liberated from what he sees as the hindrances on him."

This is not, it should be noted, a belief on the president's part that if he just gave it to 'em straight, he could transform American politics with the power of honest words. That view is alarmingly persistent among certain members of the punditry, and Obama is plainly contemptuous of it. He understand the constraints he's under, how the institutions of Washington conspire to make change difficult, and where the limits on presidential power lie. But if he really wanted to "go Bulworth," there isn't anything stopping him. What does he have to lose?